The family of Dr. Lorna M. Breen is sounding the alarm about the importance of health care workers' mental health

By Georgia Slater
April 30, 2020 12:57 PM
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The family of Dr. Lorna M. Breen — a New York City emergency room doctor who died by suicide this week — is sounding the alarm about the importance of health care workers' mental health, something that Breen struggled with as she fought on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic.

On Thursday, Breen's sister and brother-in-law, Jennifer and Corey Feist spoke to Savannah Guthrie on Today, where they opened up about Breen's experience with COVID-19 as both a patient and a doctor.

When asked whether the couple thought it was "a result of her being sick with COVID" or the "incredibly strenuous conditions" she had to work amid the pandemic, Jennifer said she thought it was "both" that led to Breen's tragic death.

"She had COVID. And I believe that it altered her brain. Then she went back to the most horrific, unimaginable conditions," Jennifer said. "And for somebody whose life's calling is helping people, and she just couldn't help enough people. And the combination was just untenable."

She recalled that Breen, 49, worked "12-hour shifts" at New York-Presbyterian Allen Hospital and wouldn't leave when they were over because she felt she had "to stay and help."

"She said 'it was like Armageddon,' and that 'There are so many sick people everywhere,' " Jennifer said. "She said, 'People are just dying in the waiting room before they even get in. There aren't enough hookups for the oxygen to help them. They're not getting admitted fast enough. We can't keep up.' "

While Breen didn't want to take time off, Jennifer tried to convince her otherwise.

"I kept telling my sister, you know, 'You can't — if you can't function, you can't help anybody. You have to sleep. You have to rest.' And she just didn't want to give up," she said.

Breen had been staying at Jennifer and Corey's home in Charlottesville, Virginia, since she contacted them earlier this month about her struggles with mental health.

Jennifer first brought Breen to the emergency room at UVA Health where she stayed for 11 days before she moved in with the couple before dying by suicide on Sunday.

The couple hopes that by sharing Breen's story, they can raise awareness about the importance of checking in on health care workers during this trying time.

"I'm hearing so much from people who work in health care saying, 'We always have to be brave. We always have to be strong. It's not okay to say that you're suffering,' '' Jennifer said. "There's a stigma."

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She continued, "I know my sister felt like she couldn't sit down. She couldn't stop working, and she certainly couldn't tell anybody she was struggling. And that needs to be a conversation that changes. People need to be able to say they're suffering and to take a break."

Dr. Lawrence A. Melniker, the vice-chair for quality care at the NewYork-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital, echoed the Feist's sentiments about mental health earlier this week.

He pointed out that this health crisis has been particularly challenging for emergency physicians in New York — the state which currently leads the nation in coronavirus cases and deaths — as it brings on unprecedented mental health concerns like whether they or a loved one will fall ill and if they’ll have to treat their infected co-workers.

As a way to provide mental health support to health care workers, the Feists have set up the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes' Fund in their sister's honor.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

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