She’s an Army captain, a Catholic sister and a doctor.
Deirdre Byrne wears many hats — quite literally: a scrub hat when she’s doing surgery and a habit as part of her everyday attire.
The statuesque, graying 52-year-old recently exchanged her habit for a helmet and uniform: She spent three months in southern Afghanistan, serving as a doctor (while treating patients, though, she wears scrubs) and reservist in the U.S. Army.
“We were there to support our U.S. soldiers, coalition forces and civilians,” Sister Dede says. Turned out that most of her and the other medical staffs’ effort and time were devoted to mending civilian lives and limbs.
“The Taliban is out there every day trying to wreak havoc,” she says. “One day, the Taliban bombed a village, and we had 17 patients — flown in by helicopter — in our 10-bed hospital.”
While gruesome and heart-wrenching, she says of the experience in Afghanistan: “I was happy to be at the healing end of things.”
Which is what she does whether serving as a nun and doctor for the poor in the District or Kakuma, Kenya, through Catholic Charities, or as a U.S. Army doctor in Afghanistan.
She’s a healer, and in her unique position as a nun and general surgeon (she also is board certified in family medicine) she’s concerned with life here on Earth — and the hereafter.
“I’m not just a pro-life doctor, I’m pro-eternal life,” she says. “God makes it very clear that he is working through me. … God gave me the opportunity to be a physician, and he creates the miracles.”
But how exactly did she get to this triad of professions and callings?
As one might expect, it was not a straight path but just the kind of winding, long road that seems a prerequisite for the type of person Sister Dede is — someone who seems to easily move in any circle but whose ideals and faith never waver.
Lighting the way
Sister Dede is sitting in the unofficial pharmacy of the Spanish Catholic Charities clinic in the District’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood, a room so stuffed with medication — mostly donated — that a wrong turn or step could cause a pill-bottle avalanche.
She volunteers full time at the clinic, treating immigrants — many of them from Central America; some legal, some illegal — for everything from bumps and spider veins to cancers.