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 vowed two years ago to do everything they could to help other health care professionals combat burnout and mental health issues after Breen's death by suicide in the early days of the pandemic.
Their tireless effort has brought life to the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act, a bill expected to be signed into law and mentioned by President Joe Biden at his State of the Union address on Tuesday night.
The new law is the first legislation of its kind and provides federal grants for training programs on treatment to reduce burnout for health care professionals, offer mental health services and prevent deaths by suicide by health care workers.
Breen's sister, Jennifer Feist, and brother-in-law, Corey Feist, spoke to Savannah Guthrie in an exclusive interview on TODAY Tuesday about honoring Breen's legacy by helping others in her profession.
“My mom texted me right before we started talking to you, and she said, 'Here’s my two cents. I think Lorna is in heaven smiling down at all the good that has come about,'" Jennifer Feist told Savannah. "We are so pleased and honored to be turning it into something positive and turning it into an experience that will help others for years to come. I think my sister would be thrilled by that."
Breen, 49, was an emergency room doctor at New York-Presbyterian Allen Hospital in New York City who was on the front lines in March 2020 when the first wave of COVID-19 patients overwhelmed the hospital system.
She suffered from the virus herself before going back to working 12-hour days during the surge of patients and deaths. Breen's family shared on TODAY in 2020 that she reached out to them for help while dealing with mental health issues from the stress of the pandemic.
Her sister had a pair of friends drive Breen from New York to Baltimore, where Jennifer picked her up to take her to her home in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Breen stayed for 11 days.
Breen died by suicide at the Feists' home, putting a spotlight on the question of who is helping the frontline workers cope with the overwhelming stress of their jobs during the pandemic.
Breen had never had any previous mental health issues, according to her family.
“I never could have imagined losing my sister ever,” Feist said. “I thought we would be old ladies together.
“But if she can’t be here with me, I’m happy that Corey and I can carry the flag for her.”
Since the pandemic began, nearly half of the 13,000 physicians across 29 specialties surveyed by Medscape last year reported feeling burned out.
Nearly one in five health care workers has quit their job during the pandemic, while another 12% have been laid off, according to Morning Consult.
"We heard from hundreds and hundreds of health care workers across the country, in some cases across the world, who said to us, 'We have not been able to get help ourselves. We’ve not been able to take a break,'" Corey Feist said.
The Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act easily passed both houses of Congress and is now headed to Biden's desk to be signed into law. Funding for it was included in the American Rescue Plan Act that was passed last year, according to Corey Feist.
The money has been allocated to 46 institutions across the country working to help health care professionals. The Feists said they are also about to take part in a nationwide awareness campaign with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The couple also announced on TODAY last year that they had formed the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes Foundation, dedicated to funding research and programs aimed at reducing burnout among health care workers and reducing the stigma of health care professionals seeking assistance for mental health issues.
"It is making an impact, and we are hearing from the health care workforce that it is already working and helping," Corey Feist said. "And the the gratitude and appreciation for this right now, given what they’ve been through is, frankly, even more important than the dollars."