Family of COVID-19 Doctor Calls for Change in Medical Culture

Sep 17, 2020

The family of a Charlottesville woman is speaking out today about her tragic death and the need to change how we view our doctors and nurses. They may be heroes, but they are also human. 

Sandy Hausman reports on how the suicide of  49-year-old Lorna Breen could help other healthcare providers.

Dr. Lorna Breen ran the emergency department at New York - Presbyterian Allen Hospital during the height of the COVID crisis.
Credit Credit New York - Presbyterian Allen Hospital

In mid-March, as the COVID pandemic was taking hold in New York, Lorna Breen returned from a vacation to resume work as the head of a hospital emergency room. She told her sister – Jennifer Feist – that the city was not prepared for a pandemic, but Breen had always been an over-achiever – able to manage difficult situations.

“In a span of barely three weeks, my sister treated patients with COVID, contracted the virus, recovered and went back to work," Feist recalls. "When she was out sick, she was in constant contact with her hospital, tracking the PPE supplies, tracking the doctors, nurses and Pas who were going out sick every day.  As soon as she was fever-free for three days, she was put back on the schedule with nine 12-hour shifts. She told me her colleagues were sleeping at work, staying for 18 hours at a time, to try and help as many people as they could.”

They were running out of protective equipment, beds for the sick and help in caring for them.

“She told me patients were dying in the waiting rooms and hallways," Feist says. "There weren’t enough ways to get oxygen to all the patients who needed it.  There wasn’t enough room for the people who had died. She told me the scene was like Armageddon.”

On April 9th,  Breen called to say she couldn’t get out of her chair.

“Lorna had no prior mental health issues.  She had no history of depression or anxiety. Her primary concern was her job. She was worried that she would lose her medical license or be ostracized by her colleagues because she was suffering burnout due to her work on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis.  She was afraid to get help, even when we managed to get her out of New York and home to Charlottesville, where she could be evaluated and was ultimately hospitalized  at the University of Virginia Medical Center,” her sister explains.

She would spend 11 days in the psychiatric ward at UVA before being released.  Friends and family thought she had recovered. But on April 26th, Breen took her own life.

She didn’t leave a note, but studies of medical workers in China, Canada and Italy showed increased rates of anxiety, depression and insomnia among those who treated COVID patients, and Corey Feist – Breen’s brother-in-law and the COO of UVA’s Physician Group – says healthcare providers were at increased risk for suicide even before the coronavirus hit.

“More than one physician in the United States dies by suicide each and every day," he says. "The rate of suicide for physicians and nurses is twice that of the national average.”

The most common complaint is burn out.  Sixty-two percent of nurses and 42% of doctors report feeling it during the pandemic, but Dr. Victor Dzau, President of the National Academy of Medicine, says most suffer in silence.

“If patients see you as weak, how can they have confidence in you, therefore you must always put forward the best face," he explains.  "Life and death – you can’t show weakness. I think that is a culture that needs to change.”

In Richmond, recovering from his own case of COVID, U.S. Senator Tim Kaine heard about Dr. Breen and was moved by her story.

“Lorna was not just a great doctor, she was a researcher and writer and her last published article was about physician burn out and about strategies that needed to be implemented in emergency rooms to help deal with this issue," Kaine says. "This was an article that she researched and wrote before COVID hit.”

He’s now sponsoring the Lorna Breen Act – a bill to educate healthcare professionals about this problem, to explore ways we can deal with it, to provide more mental healthcare for doctors and nurses, and to fund future studies of burn out.  

If you or someone you know needs help, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Click here for more information about the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes' Foundation

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.