According to Jennifer Feist, her sister, Dr. Lorna Breen was in the middle of “a firestorm of illness” in March and early April dealing with COVID-19 at her Manhattan hospital and simply “couldn’t do it anymore."
Dr. Breen’s suicide in late April grabbed headlines in the New York Times, shining a spotlight on the crisis of physician suicide, a crisis her sister said she never knew existed. As a result, Feist, a Charlottesville, Virginia attorney co-founded (with her husband Corey Feist) the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes' Foundation, dedicated to protecting the well-being of physicians and health care professionals.
The foundations website says Dr. Breen spent her career in practice at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan and became the director of the emergency room at the Allen Hospital in 2008. It was in that same emergency room, early in 2020 that the COVID pandemic hit hard. Dr. Breen’s father, also a physician, told the Times how his daughter described for him “an onslaught of patients who were dying before they could even be taken out of ambulances."
Feist sat down for an interview with us for the Entercom “I’m Listening” program, aimed at removing the stigma of asking for mental health help. Dr. Breen’s family had no idea she was struggling so badly early in the year. They knew the pandemic was beginning to arrive and they knew Lorna was working almost nonstop. Dr. Breen had no medical history of mental issues, no challenges that anyone knew of with anxiety and depression. Her risk factor for suicide was “she was a physician."
Feist said it was the perfect storm.
“She was an emergency room physician in a global pandemic in the worst place in the world to be doing the worst job," Feist said. In the middle of her work, Dr. Breen even contracted COVID-19, but was back at work within days of having been cleared to return. The spiral seemed to continue for Dr. Breen. She took a leave of absence and traveled to Virginia to seek help there. She died by suicide in late April.
Today, Feist and her husband are advocates for mental health care for front line medical professionals.
“This is a real crisis and I didn’t know about it until my sister died,” Feist said.
“Physician suicide is at a crisis point in this country as is nurse suicide,” Feist added, pointing out that the rate of burnout anxiety and depression self-reported are “off the charts."
The Feists' are working with Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine on a bi-partisan bill in the U.S. Senate called the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act. A companion bill for the House is also in the works. Both bills are aimed at preventing physician burnout, suicide in the medical profession, and providing mental health care for professionals who need it in the health care industry.
Feist said, “I believe there is a culture stigma in the community that says 'you have to be tough, you can’t be a snowflake to get in here. Don’t say you need help. Don’t say you are scared. Don’t say you are worried.' That’s got to change."
The foundation is also focused on reforming the culture in medicine, including the licensing and credentialing process for doctors and residents.
“There is no shame. This is part of life,” says Feist. “It’s important what we learn and what we do about it.”
We asked what we all could do to help our health care providers. Feist said it could be as simple as reaching out to your own doctor or health professional to ask them how they may be doing in this stressful time. She says she often wondered what would have happened if someone would have asked that of Dr. Lorna Breen when they noticed she was struggling.
“I’d like to see health care organizations; I’d like to see hospitals; I’d like to see the hospital where my sister worked; others like that to provide mental health support, not just when there is a crisis and the house is on fire, but before there is a crisis," Feist said. “Let’s provide the support for these people that they need."