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Family of New York ER doctor who died by suicide: Getting COVID 'altered her brain'

Dr. Lorna Breen's tragic death has left her loved ones reeling, and brings attention to the mental health challenges currently facing health care workers.
/ Source: TODAY

The nation mourned this week when Dr. Lorna Breen, a New York emergency room doctor who battled to save the lives of coronavirus patients, died by suicide.

Jennifer and Corey Feist, Breen's sister and brother-in-law, opened up about their loss to Savannah Guthrie in an exclusive interview on TODAY Thursday. Jennifer Feist believes that Breen, 49, who was ill with COVID-19 herself before returning to oversee the emergency room at New York-Presbyterian Allen Hospital, was tormented by the fact that she couldn't help more people.

"She said it was like Armageddon," Jennifer 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.'"

The couple also shared that Breen called them earlier this month asking for help during struggles with her mental health, saying she "couldn't get out of her chair." Her sister 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 this past weekend before dying by suicide at their Charlottesville home on Sunday.

Feist believes the virus impacted her sister's brain in negative ways.

"When you think about what happened to Lorna, do you believe it was a result of her being sick with COVID or do you believe it was a result of her having to work so hard under these incredibly strenuous conditions?" Savannah asked.

"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," Feist added. "When she finished, she said, 'I can't leave. Nobody's leaving. I have to stay and help.'"

Feist implored Breen to take better care of herself. But the late doctor was determined to save as many lives as she could.

"I kept telling my sister, you know, 'You can't — if you can't function, you can't help anybody. You have to sleep. You have to rest.' And she just didn't want to give up," said Feist.

The Feists are speaking out about Breen in the hope of bringing awareness to the mental health issues that health care workers under enormous strain can face.

"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 okay to say that you're suffering,''' Feist said. "There's a stigma.

"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 couple has also set up the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes' Fund in her memory to provide mental health support to health care workers.

"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 in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting ‘Home’ to 741741.