It was less than 24 hours after Lorna Breen, MD, FACEP, died by suicide when The New York Times published the news. There it was, a headline the Breen family could have never imagined for their beloved sister, daughter, aunt: “Top ER Doctor Who Treated Virus Patients Dies by Suicide.”
Explore This IssueACEP Now: Vol 39 – No 09 – September 2020
Their world had been capsized by shock and grief, and the Breen family was huddled together in Charlottesville, Virginia, holding this horrific, unthinkable news as their own tragic truth. The Breens did not want to tell anyone about Lorna’s death, and they certainly did not want to announce it to the Times’ 47 million Twitter followers. But the news was out there, and there was nothing they could do about it.
As the family cried together, they tried to figure out what to do next. “Jennifer and I had this incredible moment of clarity,” said Corey Feist, Lorna’s brother-in-law. “We needed to lean into this conversation, and we needed to shine a light on it.”
The Breen Bond
Jennifer and Lorna Breen were “soul mates,” according to Corey. Jennifer was younger than Lorna by 22 months, and they were inseparable. The sisters developed their own language as children and kept it going into adulthood, often switching into it for secret sister chats. To Corey, a health care executive, Lorna was a “big sister” who shared his passion for running and was his favorite person to talk to about the quirks of working in the medical industry. To the Feist children and her other nieces and nephews, Lorna was “the cool aunt,” a status she greatly treasured.
The Feist family had just wrapped up their annual vacation with Lorna when she returned to unfamiliar territory at the emergency department at NewYork-Presbyterian Allen Hospital. COVID-19 had dramatically changed the landscape while she was traveling, and she immediately started sprinting to keep up with the increasing patient loads and rapidly changing protocols. It was March 18—only four days after returning to work—when she experienced her first COVID-19 symptoms.
The Feists spoke with Lorna daily as she tried to manage the illness alone at her home. Feverish and weak, she expressed concern for her colleagues and their safety, worrying about the personal protective equipment shortages and many staffers who had also fallen ill. She tried to help with a group project for the MBA program that she was enrolled in and kept in touch with her Bible study friends. Gifted with an incredible motor and work ethic, resting didn’t come naturally for her. The woman who regularly ran marathons was now winded by doing the dishes. Still, she knew she was urgently needed back at work.