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My calling to religious life began when I was a young girl growing up in McLean, Virginia, in a very devout family. My parents were daily Mass-goers, and that always inspired me. My father was a busy thoracic surgeon but still made it a priority to attend Mass every day before work. My mother got us ready for school and then went to 9 a.m. Mass – no small commitment since she was raising eight children. From the faithful, loving example of my parents, my brothers and sisters and I learned what it means to have Christ within you. Parents should never underestimate the influence they have on their children’s spiritual lives.
Growing up, I looked at the events of the world around me through a religious lens in an attempt to find their deeper meaning. The religious life – serving God and the poor – was a constant draw for me.
During my time in medical school, I followed the work Mother Teresa was doing in India, and after a seven-year commitment in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, I spent a year working as a missionary, with part of this time in India with a surgeon by the name of Sister Frederick. Sr. Frederick had trained at Georgetown University as a surgeon, where I had attended medical school, and spent her life serving in India, and she reinforced my dual vocation to religious life and work as a surgeon.
Knowing your calling doesn’t come without challenges and sacrifice. After already having completed a residency in family practice, I finished my second residency in general surgery in 1997. Like many women, I spent my “dating years” working 120-hour weeks in the hospital. In my case, it was a blessing, as it strengthened my vocation to religious life. I was sustained during this grueling surgical training by daily reception of the Eucharist and stolen moments in the hospital chapel for quiet reflection on the scripture readings for the day. Following my parents’ example of communion with and reliance on the Lord saw me through this time in my life. This was spiritual sustenance for me.
It was in this same year that, by the hand of God, I had the opportunity to serve as Mother Teresa’s doctor for five days during her visit to Washington. I took it as an affirmation that the work I was doing was, in fact, part of God’s plan for me.
It so happened that I was searching for a religious order to join, and I considered the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa’s order, which would have meant giving up the practice of medicine. Then a priest who had served as a Catholic chaplain during the Vietnam War introduced me to the Little Workers of the Sacred Hearts. The work of the order included a medical component, and it was a perfect fit. I started my formation in 2002, took my first vows in 2004, and I recently made final vows.
I now practice medicine at the Spanish Catholic Center in Washington, D.C. It is a blessing to serve the humble, hardworking people of this community. Through my religious order, I am still able to help others around the world in need of medical care. After the devastating earthquake in Haiti, I provided relief services to victims near Port Au Prince, and I travel to Africa every year for several months at a time. I have also been deployed three times as a reservist since 2001, the last time in Afghanistan for three months.
I have learned God doesn’t always call us to do big things; it’s the day to day little things we do that help us make God present to others. St. Therese of Lisieux, the patron saint of missionaries, said, “We can do no great things; only small things with great love.”
I wake up every day and I love my life. For me, it is not a holy vocation, but a holy vacation.
Sister Deirdre “Dede” Byrne is a fully professed member of the Little Workers of the Sacred Hearts who performs overseas medical missionary work and provides free medical care for the poor and uninsured in the Washington, D.C., area. She is board-certified in both family practice and general surgery, holds the rank of colonel in the U.S. Army Medical Corps and serves as a member of the Advisory Council for the Archdiocese of Washington’s Health Care Network. Sr. Dede is a graduate of Virginia Polytechnic and State University and Georgetown University School of Medicine.
Read more essays from local faith leaders.