Breen’s father, Philip C. Breen, told the New York Times that she had described coronavirus patients flooding her hospital and sometimes dying before they could be removed from the ambulances. She had no history of mental illness but seemed detached before she died, the Times reported.
“She tried to do her job, and it killed her,” Breen told the newspaper.
He later added: “Make sure she’s praised as a hero, because she was. She’s a casualty just as much as anyone else who has died.”
After she contracted the coronavirus, Lorna Breen, 49, recovered for about a week and a half and then tried to return to work, Philip Breen told the Times. The hospital directed her to go back home, and her family brought her to stay with them in Charlottesville.
The Washington Post could not immediately reach Breen’s family on Tuesday.
Lucky Tran, a spokesperson for Columbia University Irving Medical Center and NewYork-Presbyterian, echoed Philip Breen’s praise of Lorna as a hero.
“Dr. Breen is a hero who brought the highest ideals of medicine to the challenging front lines of the emergency department,” Tran said in a statement.
The Allen campus of NewYork-Presbyterian, located on the north side of Manhattan, serves the region of the United States that has been most devastated by the pandemic. New York state had reported 295,106 cases of the coronavirus and 22,866 deaths as of Tuesday.
Breen’s suicide comes during a global pandemic that increasingly directs health-care workers’ attention toward the mental health risks faced by physicians, who die by suicide at twice the rate of the general population. Among doctors, women are the most vulnerable.
Early research out of Wuhan, China, where the coronavirus outbreak is believed to have originated, indicated that female front-line workers experienced higher rates or more-severe symptoms of depression, anxiety, insomnia and distress than health-care workers overall.
Suicides are an occupational risk for emergency physicians, and the brutality of a pandemic can make them more common, said Loice Swisher, an emergency room physician in Philadelphia and a member of the American Association of Suicidology.
“I’m afraid we’re going to see more of this. And not just physicians,” Swisher said. “People who are losing their jobs, who think all is lost and just don’t see an end to this.”
While suicide and many of the feelings that precede it can be difficult to talk about, Swisher said, doctors in particular can struggle within a larger culture that views them as steady, competent and driven. Doctors who struggle may be especially reluctant to ask for help from the people best positioned to intervene — their own colleagues.
“We don’t want to be seen as a weak link. We don’t want to be seen as incompetent or place an extra burden on our colleagues,” Swisher said. “It’s almost like you’re being kicked off the island — you don’t belong anymore — if you admit to [needing help].”
There are also professional consequences that can deter doctors from seeking support, said William Jaquis, president of the American College of Emergency Physicians. State medical boards and hospitals often ask doctors seeking hospital credentials whether they have ever been treated for depression.
Those credentialing and licensing boards do not distinguish between whether a depressive episode was 20 years ago or last month, Jaquis said. The risk is the same.
“We need to be able to get treatment for depression without the stigma behind it,” he said, adding that a history of depression or mental illness does not necessarily indicate a risk of suicidal thoughts. “There are ‘happy’ doctors who kill themselves.”
Charlottesville Police Chief RaShall Brackney said Breen’s suicide serves as a reminder that health-care workers on the front lines of the pandemic are not immune to its mental or physical effects.
“Personal protective equipment (PPE) can reduce the likelihood of being infected,” she said in a statement. “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.”
Before working at NewYork-Presbyterian, Breen attended the Medical College of Virginia at Virginia Commonwealth University and completed her residency at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens. She also taught emergency medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, according to her bio on the hospital’s website.
As a longtime member of the American College of Emergency Physicians, Breen spearheaded a point-of-care tool — a research resource that doctors can use while with a patient — for people with autism spectrum disorder, the organization said in a statement.
JoAnne Tarantelli, executive director of the ACEP’s New York chapter, said in the statement that she and Breen often discussed Breen’s travels and snowboarding vacations.
“She was a gentle soul with a kind heart and engaging personality,” Tarantelli said. “Lorna will be remembered for her dedication, devotion and contributions to emergency medicine.”
If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). You can also text a crisis counselor by messaging the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
Meagan Flynn contributed to this report.