A heroic New York City emergency room doctor was driven to suicide in the depths of the coronavirus crisis, her family says — and the relentless strain of modern medicine, which rewards perfection and disdains weakness, is to blame.
“If the culture had been different, that thought would have never even occurred to her, which is why I need to change the culture,” Jennifer Feist said of her sister, Dr. Lorna Breen.
“We need to change it. Like, as of today,” she told The New York Times.
Breen, 49, killed herself April 26, while medical director of the emergency department at NewYork-Presbyterian Allen Hospital in Upper Manhattan, located in a low-income community that was especially hard hit by COVID-19.
“She had something that was a little bit different, and that was this optimism that her persistent efforts will save lives,” colleague and friend Dr. Barbara Lock told The Times.
As coronavirus cases in New York began to multiply out of control this spring, leaving patients in her emergency room to be treated in hallways and bodies of victims to be stored in an X-ray room, Breen turned to her Bible study group for comfort.
“People I work with are so confused by all of the mixed messages and constantly changing instructions,” she wrote them on March 14.
A few days later Breen fell ill with the virus herself. She quarantined at home — but felt guilty for the fever and exhaustion that kept her away from her work.
When she returned, she wrote a friend, she felt “baffled and overwhelmed.”
“I’m drowning right now,” she texted her prayer group.
Studies in China, Canada and Italy have found that doctors treating coronavirus patients are increasingly afflicted with insomnia, anxiety and depression and insomnia, The Times noted.
NewYork-Presbyterian said that it has offered mental-health assistance to its staffers since late March.
But the stigma of asking for help was another burden.
“Lorna kept saying, ‘I think everybody knows I’m struggling,’” Feist said. “She was so embarrassed.”
By mid-April, almost paralyzed by the strain, Breen was hospitalized in a psychiatric unit in Charlottesville, Virginia, near her family home for more than a week.
Only days after her release, as she stayed temporarily with her mother, Breen killed herself. She did not leave a note.
Breen’s friend Anna Ochoa is haunted by her their final conversation.
“’I couldn’t help anyone. I couldn’t do anything,’” Ochoa remembers her repeating. “‘I just wanted to help people, and I couldn’t do anything.’”