This story discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide please call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text TALK to 741741 or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.
The family of Dr. Lorna Breen has made it their mission to reduce burnout in healthcare professionals and safeguard their well-being a year after Breen died by suicide while working on the front lines early in the pandemic.
Breen, 49, who worked at NewYork-Presbyterian Allen Hospital, took her own life last April after experiencing the mass death of the first wave of COVID-19 patients in New York City and then suffering from the virus herself. Her death put a spotlight on the question of who is helping those who are helping others as frontline workers.
"I believe that this could have been avoided," Breen's sister, Jennifer Feist, told Savannah Guthrie on TODAY Tuesday. "That's what's driven me. And if we can help somebody else in the health care profession avoid an outcome like my sister had, this will have all been worth it."
Feist and her husband, Corey Feist, have formed the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes Foundation, which is dedicated to reducing the stigma of health care professionals seeking help for mental health issues and funding research and programs aimed at reducing burnout in the profession and improving the well-being of frontline health care workers.
The Feists have also worked with Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) on legislation aimed at preventing suicide and burnout among health care professionals, which Kaine first introduced last year and reintroduced last month.
The family shared on TODAY last year that Breen called them asking for help, saying she was struggling with her mental health after dealing with the overwhelming surge of cases and deaths early in the pandemic in New York City. Jennifer Feist had a friend of Breen's drive her from New York to Philadelphia, where a high school friend picked her up and took her to Baltimore.
Jennifer Feist met her sister there and brought her straight to the emergency room at UVA Health in Charlottesville, Virginia, where she stayed for 11 days. She then moved in with the Feists before dying by suicide at their Charlottesville home.
Jennifer Feist believes her sister's own bout with COVID-19 and the stigma surrounding asking for help as a medical professional contributed to her death.
"What I know today is the same thing I knew, even before my sister died, which was that she got sick with COVID and it affected her brain," she said Tuesday. "The tragedy is she had enough of her faculties to know that if she raised her hand as a physician, and said, 'I can't think, I can't work, I need help,' it could have been devastating to her career.
"We know now exactly the same thing I knew a year ago, which is that it was the combination of COVID and the culture in medicine that killed my sister."
More than 8 in 10 emergency room physicians like Breen reported feeling more stress during the pandemic, but nearly half said they were not comfortable seeking mental health treatment, according to a poll released in October by the American College of Emergency Physicians and Morning Consult. More than 70% of those polled said there is a stigma in their workplace around getting help.
"It's there and it's strong," Jennifer Feist said. "It is a well-established premise in healthcare that you do not seek mental health care, you just don't."
Feist said a major reason healthcare professionals avoid seeking help is fear of losing their job or their medical license.
"It's because of the credentialing and also it's because of your potential harm to your reputation as somebody who can't take it," she said. "One of the real struggles with my sister was that she thought she was going to lose her license.
"And what we learned after she died is that New York state has some of the best licensing laws in the United States. And so my question is, why didn't she know that?"
Doctors are licensed by the state where they practice, and the applications in some states ask questions about whether they have ever been treated for mental illness.
"Only one state, and that is the state of Mississippi, has the best possible questions," Corey Feist said on TODAY. "It literally says, 'We recognize there's a connection there between you taking care of yourself and your quality of care, we want you to attest to us that you're doing that and you're taking care of yourself.' We need 49 more of those to happen across the country."
The Feists are trying to eliminate the stigma and barriers between healthcare workers seeking help at a crucial time, as many frontline workers across the country are processing what they have experienced during the height of the pandemic in the past year.
COVID-19 protocols at many hospitals and facilities meant that doctors and nurses were often the only conduits between families, setting up FaceTime calls and relaying devastating news on virtual calls because family members were not allowed to be there in person with their loved ones.
The Feists worry that America is on a verge of a mental health crisis for health care workers.
"Oh, there's no doubt in my mind, and there's significant data to back that up," Jennifer Feist said. "What's been found is that, in the heat of trauma, people are just focused on getting through it. It's when things calm down, it's when you relax, it's when you can take a breath, that's when the real problems start."
The couple also hopes to honor Breen by using her tragic death to prompt other healthcare workers to seek help before it's too late.
"I think she would love it," Feist said. "I think my sister was here for a reason and maybe this is it. We have made changes. We've heard from people who have changed the way they live because they heard what happened to my sister, and I think she would love it."