A Truly Remarkable Individual: Sr. Deirdre Byrne, U.S. Army Surgeon

By Edward Timperlake

Thomas Jefferson with profound insight said: “I tremble for my Country when I reflect God is just; that his Justice cannot sleep forever.”

“DC” meaning the entire SMSA of “The District” which includes the suburbs of Maryland and Virginia is often criticized as being filled with self-important people.  But the old adage that “people are people across the spectrum of endeavors” is much more appropriate.

When one is fortunate to meet a totally dedicated selfless individual who has dedicated her life to God with amazing medical secular skills, it was a grace filled moment in time for me and my colleague Robbin Laird.

Meet Sr. Deirde Byrne, POSC:

Sister Deirdre Byrne is an active missionary sister and superior of her community in Washington, DC. She is double board-certified in family medicine and general surgery. A native of the Washington, D.C. area, Sister Deirdre (known to many as Sister DeDe) is one of eight siblings, attended Langley High School, and graduated from Virginia Tech.  After college, Sister DeDe followed in her thoracic surgeon father’s footsteps and entered medical school at Georgetown University, where she eventually completed a surgical residency. During that time, she also joined the Army. After a life of medical and military service in far ranging areas, she was led to the Little Workers of the Sacred Hearts community, whose charism involves sisters placing each and every person they care for between the Heart of Jesus and Mary.  Her apostolate has been performing overseas medical missionary surgery and providing free medical care for the poor and uninsured.

Sister Byrne’s order “Little Workers of the Sacred Hearts is as Sister Byrne informed us” was founded by blessed Francesco Maria Greco (beatified in 2016) and Maria Teresa De Vincenti, who is now on a Papal journey after her death in 1936 to Beautification and eventually Sainthood:”

As was noted here:

On 20 January 2021, the Holy Father Francis received His Eminence Cardinal Marcello Semeraro, Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. During the audience, the Supreme Pontiff authorized the Congregation to promulgate the Decree concerning the heroic virtues of the Servant of God Maria Teresa De Vincenti (known in the world as Raffaella), Foundress of The Little Workers of the Sacred Hearts, born in Acri (Cosenza-Italy) on 1 May 1872, and died there on 23 November 1936.

Often the image, and actual practice of Nuns are that they are fearsome for one’s own good to educate the young.

Having attended Saint Patricks’ Elementary School in Staten Island as a student in the fifties, I have a very healthy respect for the Nuns that teach you. In that era, one of the high points of Catholic education was imprinted throughout America by Hollywood.

When I was in school, Bing Crosby had recently played Father O’Malley, with Ingrid Bergman in the role of Sister Benedict,  in the great 1945 movie, The Bells of Saint Marys.

What is often not widely known is the back story of the writer as pointed out in movie history:

Leo McCarey was inspired to write the original story in tribute to his own aunt and childhood counselor Sister Mary Benedict, one of the Sisters who helped to build the Immaculate Heart Convent in Hollywood (authors note-imagine that today)  and who died in a typhoid fever epidemic. It was the highest-grossing movie of 1945 in the USA. It made a profit of $3,715,000, making it the most profitable film in the history of RKO.

This movie helped cement the nationwide image of Nuns as educators.

However, for Sr. Deirdre Byrne MD, her path is uniquely different. She is a current medical missionary and has served as a U.S. Army combat surgeon in Afghanistan.

In our companion article my fellow author Robbin Laird pointed out:

Our time at the convent was special. I am used to dealing with persons focused on power and policy – this was not Sister Byrne’s perspective at all. It was about helping those in need and in distress, but she did so from a vantage point that was more like Hawkeye Pierce than what I imagined a nun would be like.

It is often quipped in combat when something heroically special happens, where do we get such people?

However, traditionally most often for a Catholic religious order, it is the chaplain who is very appropriately honored to be on the front line.

For example, in the sea service, we had Father Jake Laboon, an all American Lacrosse Player at the Naval Academy, and recipient of a Silver Star for saving a downed pilot under fire that his submarine was rescuing off a Pacific Island in WWII. I served Mass for Father Laboon at the subbase in Groton Connecticut when my Navy dad’s family left Staten Island NY and he was our Catholic Chaplain at The Naval Academy.

A tight end for the USNA football team and an All American in lacrosse, Laboon graduated with his classmates in June 1943. He served with distinction in the Pacific submarine force, winning the Silver Star for gallantry aboard USS Peto (SS 265).

Laboon served as the first chaplain for the Fleet Ballistic Missile Submarine Program, but also served as chaplain at his alma mater the United States Naval Academy, undertook a tour of duty with the US Marines in Vietnam, where he was awarded the Legion of Merit, and later served as Fleet Chaplain of the United States Atlantic Fleet.

Another heroic Catholic Priest who served in Vietnam, this time with the United States Army J Robert Falabella who  received a Silver Star and  a Bronze Star serving with the 25th Infantry Division, nicknamed “Tropic Lightning.

Sister Byrne M.D. chose a medical path to helping those in need both in civilian life and those serving in uniform in the Army. Her calling came from her youth.

Her father was a Physician and she grew up in McLean Va. Sister Byrne was called to a vocation early;

She told us in our interview held at her convent in May 2024:

Well, my father was a very generous man. God rest his soul. And he had a very close friend, sister, Frederick Niedfeld. She was a medical mission sister, so he donated a lot to that community based out of Philly.

But she was a general surgeon that worked in India. And we used to get all these magazines on mission work in Africa. It really just, I mean, the magazines  were  next to Mad Magazine. I love those magazines  I see myself in here, you know that guy with the freckles. (editor note, AlFred E Newman-What me worry?).  That’s how I see myself.

Her journey before 9/11 as an Army Physician took her to the Sinai Peninsula, yes that current brutal killing area, the Sinai, and South Korea where she attended in the ER. The Korean DMZ to this day is a very dangerous place as is another place she served Sudan.

Her insight on evil never sleeping when she worked in Sudan is spot on;

The thing about Sudan was in one family, you could you have a brother that’s a Muslim and a brother that was a Christian, but they got along very well, but you had this ugly regime coming from the north and they just wanted to be evil and they are evil.

Spiritual giving and medical help in fighting against pure evil in Sudan.

It can never be overlooked how physically dangerous her calling from God has taken her unselfish grace filled life’s journey has taken her.

For example, the DMZ between North and South Korea is also an evil place because of the North Korean leadership. One never to be forgotten horrible U.S. Army example is  in August of 1976 the North Korean’s ambushed a former Vietnam Veteran West Point ’66 officer Capt. Bonifas and Army Lt Barrett and beat them to death. Korea, then like today the DMZ is a very volatile place.

We then discussed with her, her experience when she returned to DC and when she medically treated Mother Teresa

When I come back to Washington, DC, and spent time in prayer, intense prayer, and serving the poor. It  was a really important time for me. I had actually met with Mother Teresa and was her physician when she was in DC for a week. I sat with her, and I was going to go to Calcutta in November but she died before that September.

Mother Teresa’s words that many should heed; “Life is an opportunity, benefit from it. Life is beauty, admire it. Life is a dream, realize it.

She then described to us her experience during September 11th in New York City at ground zero and then her transition to (Afghanistan ) religious life.

“Now Mother Teresa’s Secretary General, Sister Priscilla, was in DC. She and I were friends, and mother had died by then, and I was still a lay person and still free flowing. She said, ‘Could you take me up to New York?’ I want to see this house opened up in the Bronx many years ago. And as we drive up, September 10, 2001, Sister Priscilla said  :Oh, boy I know I’m home now. I see the towers. That’s a good thing.”

We stayed in the Bronx, which is across the bridge. And that morning, September 11, 2001, I’m at a hospital in mid-Manhattan, taking one of the sisters to get an echocardiogram, because she had had open heart surgery in the past and she was a close friend. We were in the hospital waiting room and watching TV that morning. We’re watching two towers on TV fall and then so the hospital’s going crazy. ‘My husband’s there. My wife, —-I can’t reach my husband….’

So quickly they’re trying to find doctors to help volunteers. I said, Okay, and get the police to take me to St Luke’s Hospital. I make my way and we’re waiting for casualties, there were none. (St Luke’s is at 440 West 114st Street)

I got a call from Sister Priscilla, ‘I’m bringing two sisters up to pick you up, and you go down as close as you can to the towers and give food and water to the firefighters.’

Well, we made it, the police were letting us through, as far as 10th Street. The cop said it’s too dangerous to go any further by car, so we parked and made our way, bringing food and water to the firefighters. I was at the base of the tower, September 11, giving food and water and, and miraculous holy medals.

There was a makeshift clinic already set up. There were a couple asthmatics down there. I met a couple of Europeans; those two young people were helping with the first aid.

And then I met a Jewish cop. She told me she was part of a Jewish society, and recognized us to be on a spiritual mission, and she said, there’s a lady here who was pregnant and she was dead. That was the only visible casualty we could see. The rest were incinerated.

So, we prayed over the patient, and then I gave the police officer Mother Teresa’s hallmark a Miraculous Medal (Mary mother of Jesus). We gave her the Miraculous Medal, and the Jewish police officer holds and said: ‘thank you for this trinket’.

I said, “No, this is our beautiful Jewish mother. Are you a mother?” She said, “Yes”.

I said, “well, this is  an imprinted image of a beautiful Jewish mother, the Mother of God, yes, the mother of Jesus. I told the NYPD officer; she is with you right now. Everything was very intense, and people are open minded, she held it and teared up.”

“From 2000- 2002 was a really important time in my life, because the Blessed Sacrament became more prevalent to me in my own life. I lived with the missionaries of charity and thus spent intense time before the blessed sacrament as Cardinal Hicky had asked me to do. To spend part of the day in prayer, and part of the day serving the poor medically and going overseas with the Catholic Medical Mission Board facilitated my ability to keep my surgical skills intact.”

I would work at this little clinic where I work still work now, (Northwest DC) but because I didn’t have my malpractice, which is always expensive, I would go on Catholic medical missions overseas. So that’s when I wound up In Kenya, St Lucia, Haiti Sudan and Iraq.  When I was deployed with the military (after making first vows in 2004), I worked state side and finally with the U.S. Army medical mission to Afghanistan.

When I was stationed in Korea in 1998, I met Colonel Reb Sims and his wife Laurie. They had befriended me (as they did many who were stationed there). Years later one of their sons, now Captain Sean Sims was stationed in Fallujah in in 2004. On November 13, 2004 he led a platoon into a dangerous area of Iraq and ‘Boom right in the head’. He died tragically. 

I went to his funeral, with my Superior, Sister LICIA; we were wearing our full black habits. I looked different. when at Sean’s funeral but I briefly met a friend of the family who was an Army doctor.

Now dialing  forward TO 2008,  I’m in Afghanistan, and there was a group of Special Ops.

They brought their own thoracic surgeon and a family doc and they have a whole surgical team, right? So I saw the light on that night in the hospital, and I said, this is interesting, and I’m sitting there on a stretcher parked in the hallway waiting to meet the surgical team. Mind you, I look different when I am in ACUs. I’m sitting on this stretcher, kind of kicking my leg. I’m looking and this guy comes up, and he looks familiar. He says: “sister Dede, is that you?”

This was one of the close friends of the Ivey-Sims family I met at the funeral four years earlier. We both decided to hang a flag November 13 while   in Afghanistan in honor of Seab that day and then sent the flag to his father and mother. Our military Catholic community is a close bounded community, whether active or retired.

At our base, every night, the special forces would go out and snarf out these bad guys and capture them. So, one time the medical team was operating on a Taliban who attempted to injure our own soldiers so that they could get him ready to go up to Bagram to interrogate him.

However, she and the U.S. Army also treated Afghan civilians.

She told us the following:

“We would take care of friendly fire people and also those hurt by Taliban. We had one mom who was pregnant who lost her baby, and also lost her legs above the knee by amputation. Her brother would bring her in for wound care at our clinic on base, and he carried her in all the time. I said, What about a wheelchair? And they said, what’s a wheelchair?

I called Sister, Licia and I said, Sister, can we get a wheelchair for this family? We changed his life when  we ordered a wheelchair from Pakistan, probably one that bin Laden used! (Authors note HA!)

The spiritual element during this mission was very fruitful. I met five Army National Guard guys, who were devout Catholics. Since we only had about five priests in all of Afghanistan, military priests, we were not always guaranteed mass or the sacraments, we would meet daily in the chapel and pray the rosary and daily readings for mass. If a priest was present, we would have mass. If he was not, then we would continue with our daily prayers, By the end of the three months, there were many others who came to join us in prayer. There is never an atheist in the fox hole as my father used to always say.

I thank God that I was able to be someplace where I would never have been if it wasn’t for Uncle Sam. It was a rare opportunity to offer God’s love to people who do not know Christ as best as we were able to.

There was no safe haven in Afghanistan as it was not uncommon to hear bombs going off and villages being bombed. I personally never worry about those things. I try to be in the state of grace with confession and daily mass (if possible). Soon after I left Camp Salerno Afghanistan, the base was bombed badly, especially the mess hall where many of the soldiers gathered.

Her work continues to this day including Haiti and she is grateful for the fidelity of her Religious Order and to our catholic faith.

Featured Image:  Sister Deirdre Byrne, family practitioner and general surgeon, serves in Haiti following the earthquake.

Please support her religious order.

“They are southern Italians, and are so “calibrizi testadora,” they’re strong. I believe that.

Taken from— “The Nun with a Gun.” 80% of its members were educators running schools, 20% provided health care to the most needy

This is her order:  https://littleworkersofthesacredhearts.com/

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