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Tragic loss inspires awareness and legislation surrounding mental health services for clinicians
This story was published in the winter 2020-21 issue of 12th & Marshall. You can find the current and past issues online.
Emergency room physician Lorna Breen, M’99, was an avid snowboarder, runner and salsa dancer.
She loved being the “cool” aunt to her eight nieces and nephews.
She had a close group of friends in New York, was an active member of her church and drove a convertible sports car because it made her happy.
Lorna Breen, M’99 (left), with her sister, Jennifer Feist
“She loved life,” says her sister, Jennifer Feist of Charlottesville, Virginia.
When Breen died by suicide last April, her family was devastated. As they mourned and tried to make sense of the horror that was suffocating them, they realized what they had to do.
“We needed to share Lorna’s story,” Feist says. “We realized we have to change the culture of the health care community so physicians know it is OK to ask for help when they feel overwhelmed.”
It was at NewYork-Presbyterian Allen Hospital’s ER that Breen found herself at the epicenter of a global pandemic after returning March 14 from a family vacation with Feist, Feist’s husband Corey and their children.
Hundreds of patients were sick and dying from COVID-19. Breen, who dreamed of becoming an ER physician since childhood, stepped up like she always did, Feist says – with compassion and determination.
Four days later, Breen experienced her first COVID symptoms. While recuperating at home, she worried about her colleagues and the limited supply of protective gear. She was anxious for patients and wanted to keep them safe.
She returned to the hospital on April 1 but soon felt overwhelmed by the nonstop cries for help. Scheduled to work nine 12-hour shifts in a row, she worried that if she couldn’t keep up, she could lose her job.
Breen, who had no history of depression or mental illness, “was afraid to ask for help,” Feist says. “There is this stigma that health care providers are super- heroes. But they are human. The whole paradigm has to change.”
Did you know?
According to the American Psychiatric Association, an estimated 300 to 400 doctors take their own lives each year, a rate of 28 to 40 per 100,000 – more than double that of the general population. In response, the Medical Society of Virginia launched the SafeHaven program in March to ensure clinicians can seek support without fear of damaging their careers.
In response to Breen’s experience, Feist and her family established the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation, which aims to reduce burnout of health care professionals and safeguard their well-being. The goal, Feist says, is a world where seeking mental health services is universally viewed as a sign of strength.
She has shared her sister’s story in podcasts, roundtable discussions and countless interviews. In June, Feist and her husband submitted written testimony to a Congressional hearing examining the pandemic’s toll on clinicians’ mental health. A month later, U.S. senators introduced the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act with a goal of reducing and preventing suicide, burnout, and mental and behavioral health conditions among health care professionals.
The bill has been endorsed by the American College of Emergency Physicians, which offers free counseling services for members experiencing depression, fatigue or other mental health issues.
In addition, Breen’s School of Medicine classmates established the Lorna M. Breen, M.D., Memorial Scholarship. More than $74,000 has been pledged so far.
“It will go to a third-year student who exemplifies Lorna’s passion, community service, humility and academic excellence,” says Alireza Maghsoudi, M’99, a cardiologist at Virginia Heart in Fairfax, who helped spearhead the initiative. “We want her legacy to live forever.”
That is Feist’s wish as well.
“My sister and I were incredibly close,” she says. “I can’t put into words how difficult this has been. It is my worst nightmare. But we have to tell her story. We have to help others so this never happens again.”