'I have to stay and help': Family of doctor who died by suicide says she was 'tormented' by COVID-19

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Dr. Lorna Breen, a medical director at a New York City emergency room died by suicide after treating patients during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Image via TODAY/Courtesy of the Breen Family).

This article references self-harm and suicide, which may be considered sensitive subject matter for some readers.

The family of a New York City doctor who worked during the coronavirus pandemic are speaking out about the events that lead her suicide.

Dr. Lorna Breen was working as the medical director for the emergency department at New York-Presbyterian Allen Hospital, an epicentre of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Breen had returned to work a week and a half after contracting the virus herself, but was sent home again by hospital staff.

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According to a spokesperson for the Charlottesville Police Department, local Charlottesville authorities received a call on Sunday seeking medical assistance for the 49-year-old, who was taken to the University of Virginia (UVA) Health System where she died due to self-inflicted injuries. She had been staying with family.

Dr. Lorna Breen's family hopes to encourage people in the healthcare industry to seek help if they are experiencing mental health issues. (Image via TODAY/Courtesy of the Breen Family).

In an interview with TODAY, Breen’s sister, Jennifer Feist revealed that the esteemed doctor was “tormented” by the virus and distraught over her inability to save patients.

“She said it was like Armageddon,” Feist said. "She said, ‘There are so many sick people everywhere. She said, ‘People are just dying in the waiting room before they even get in. There aren't enough hookups for the oxygen to help them. They're not getting admitted fast enough. We can't keep up.’”

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Feist told host Savannah Guthrie that Breen had been struggling — and called Feist and her husband, Corey, to ask for help. Breen admitted that her mental health had been suffering and that she “couldn’t get out of her chair.”

Dr. Lorna Breen was described by her family as "brilliant" and "dedicated." (Image via TODAY/Courtesy of the Breen and Feist Family.)

The call prompted Feist and friends to arrange for someone bring Breen from her Manhattan home to Virginia, where she was admitted to UVA Health for 11 days. After her release, Breen was taken to Feist’s home this past weekend, where she stayed before her death on Sunday. Feist believes the stress of the pandemic combined with Breen contracting the virus lead to her actions.

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“I know it in my heart that it was both. She had COVID. And I believe that it altered her brain. Then she went back to the most horrific, unimaginable conditions,” said Feist. “And for somebody whose life's calling is helping people, and she just couldn't help enough people. And the combination was just untenable. She had 12-hour shifts. When she finished, she said, ‘I can't leave. Nobody's leaving. I have to stay and help.’”

Feist added that the family has requested UVA Health perform tests on her sister’s brain to see if it could have been impacted by the virus.

Breen was only 49-year-old when she died by suicide after experiencing severe mental distress. (Image via TODAY/Courtesy of the Breen Family).

Feist added that there were many times she begged her sister to get some rest and take care of herself, but Breen insisted she keep working.

The family hopes that by sharing Breen’s story, it will help others who are working in the healthcare industry and suffering from mental health issues.

"I'm hearing so much from people who work in health care saying, ‘We always have to be brave. We always have to be strong. It's not OK to say that you're suffering. There's a stigma,” she explained. “I know my sister felt like she couldn't sit down. She couldn't stop working, and she certainly couldn't tell anybody she was struggling. And that needs to be a conversation that changes. People need to be able to say they're suffering and to take a break.”

The family has set up the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes' Fund to help provide healthcare workers with mental health support.

“For those who are working together, if you have a colleague or a friend and you are wondering if they're suffering, they probably are," Feist said. And you should reach out to that person.”

If you are struggling and in need of support, contact the Crises Services Canada by phone at 1.833.456.4566  or text  45645.

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