'Hero' ER Doctor Who Treated NYC Coronavirus Patients Dies by Suicide at 49, Father Says

"She tried to do her job, and it killed her," Dr. Philip C. Breen said of his daughter, Dr. Lorna M. Breen

The family of a top doctor at a New York City hospital has been left heartbroken after she died by suicide over the weekend amid the coronavirus pandemic, her father confirmed.

Dr. Lorna M. Breen, who served as the medical director of the emergency department at NewYork-Presbyterian Allen Hospital, died on Sunday at age 49 while staying at her family’s home in Charlottesville, Virginia, her father Dr. Philip C. Breen told The New York Times.

“She tried to do her job, and it killed her,” Phillip told the outlet. “Make sure she’s praised as a hero, because she was. She’s a casualty just as much as anyone else who has died.”

In a statement to PEOPLE, a NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia Hospital spokesperson said: “Words cannot convey the sense of loss we feel today. Dr. Breen is a hero who brought the highest ideals of medicine to the challenging front lines of the emergency department.”

“Our focus today is to provide support to her family, friends, and colleagues as they cope with this news during what is already an extraordinarily difficult time,” the hospital added.

Lorna M. Breen, MD
Chris Leary Photography

Tyler Hawn, a spokesman for the Charlottesville Police Department, also confirmed the tragedy, explaining that officers had responded to a call for someone in need of “medical assistance” on Sunday.

“The victim, identified as Dr. Lorna Breen, a resident of New York City, was taken to UVA Hospital for treatment where she later succumbed to self-inflicted injuries,” the press release read.

lorna breen

Prior to her death, Lorna had been treating coronavirus patients but eventually contracted the illness herself, Phillip told the Times. After a week and a half of being out of work, Phillip said his daughter attempted to return to her job, but the hospital sent her home.

When that occurred, Lorna’s family decided to bring the emergency room doctor down to Charlottesville, according to the Times.

Though she did not have a history of mental health illnesses, Phillip said it was clear Lorna was struggling when they last spoke, recalling to the Times how she “seemed detached” and spoke of the traumatic sights she witnessed in the ER.

“She was truly in the trenches of the front line,” he explained to the Times.

Even while she was out of work and battling the virus, Lorna’s colleagues, including emergency medicine physician, Dr. Dara Kass, noted that she remained involved with their lives and safety.

“She was always the physician who was looking out for other people’s health and well-being,” Kass told the Times, adding that Lorna would often text them to check-in and make sure they had proper PPE to wear on the job.

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Dr. Lawrence A. Melniker, the vice-chair for quality care at the NewYork-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital, echoed Kass’ sentiments and said Lorna was “well-respected and well-liked” in the hospital.

“You don’t get to a position like that at Allen without being very talented,” he explained to the Times.

Melniker also 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 of Monday, there have been at least 977,256 cases and 50,134 deaths attributed to coronavirus in the United States, according to the Times. In New York, there have been at least 292,027 cases and 17,303 deaths documented, with at least 59 of those deaths occurring at NewYork-Presbyterian Allen’s hospital, the outlet reported.

Like Melniker, Chief RaShall Brackney of Charlottesville Police Department discussed the impact that the pandemic has had on health care professionals’ mental health in the press release.

“Frontline healthcare professionals and first responders are not immune to the mental or physical effects of the current pandemic,” she said. “On a daily basis, these professionals operate under the most stressful of circumstances, and the Coronavirus has introduced additional stressors.”

“Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) can reduce the likelihood of being infected, but what they cannot protect heroes like Dr. Lorna Breen, or our first responders against is the emotional and mental devastation caused by this disease,” Brackney added.

Besides Lorna’s passion for working, friends of hers told the Times that she enjoyed sports — Lorna was a member of the New York ski club and often traveled west to ski and snowboard — volunteering and practicing her Christian faith.

She also loved being around friends and family, including her sisters and mother, who both lived in Virginia, according to the Times.

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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