New York Emergency Room Dr. Lorna Breen took her own life on April 26, highlighting the despair that medical staff in the hardest-hit communities are facing as an overwhelming number of COVID-19 patients fill hospitals.
Breen’s sister and brother-in-law, Jennifer and Corey Feist, spoke to the Today Show’s Savannah Guthrie in an exclusive interview Wednesday about the heartbreaking suicide. They tell a story of a dedicated doctor who gave as much as she could, contracted the virus herself and then went back into “armageddon” until she got to the point where she couldn’t even get out of her chair.
Jennifer Feist believes the combination of the virus’s physical effect on her sister’s brain and Breen’s inability to help all the patients that needed help led to the doctor’s suicide at 49 years old.
Feist told Guthrie, “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. And for somebody whose life’s calling is helping people, and she just couldn’t help enough people. And the combination was just untenable.”
Breen’s Family has Asked Scientists to Research Breen’s Brain to Learn More About COVID-19’s Possible Effects
While Feist says she has no scientific backing at this point, she’s convinced COVID-19 changed her sister. “I am certain that this affected her brain. There is no question,” she told the Today Show. That’s why she said the family asked doctors at the University of Virginia to do research on Breen’s brain, to try to confirm that the virus does cause some kind of alterations that could lead to changes in mental health.
According to Breen’s father, Dr. Philip C. Breen, his daughter had no history of mental illness. However, he told The New York Times she seemed detached the last time he spoke to her and he knew she something was bothering her. She told him how patients were dying in the ambulances before they could even get treatment, according to the Times.
“She was truly in the trenches of the front line,” he told them.
According to the Times, Breen was out of work for about a week and a half with the virus before going back to work. Once she went back, Feist told the Today Show, Breen didn’t feel like she could leave the hospital because there were so many patients who needed help. That was her nature. Feist said her sister said she felt like she couldn’t sit — she couldn’t stop working.
“She would not let it break her, which of course, it did,” Feist said.
Eventually, Breen could not go on, telling Feist she could not get out of her chair. A group of family and friends banded together to get Breen help, and she left New York for Virginia, where she spent 11 days at UVA Health in Charlottesville, where the Feists live. When she left the hospital she went to stay with her sister and brother-in-law at their home. That’s where she took her own life.
Scientists Are Still Working to Understand COVID-19’s Effect on the Brain
As with so much of COVID-19’s effect on the systems of the body, more research is needed to understand how it may impact mental function. The majority of research is looking at COVID-19’s effects on the brain that manifest into physical health issues, but less is understood about the disease’s possible ability to change mental health in such a substantial way that someone who seemingly had a zest for life would resort to suicide.
“My sister was on fire,” Feist told Today. “She could not be stopped. She was full of joy. She was full of life. The Lorna of the first 49 years was just so happy. She had a deep faith, good friends, she loved her family, and that’s how I’ll remember her.”
According to Science magazine, doctors have reported seeing brain inflammation encephalitis, with seizures, and with a “sympathetic storm,” a hyperreaction of the sympathetic nervous system that causes seizure-like symptoms and is most common after a traumatic brain injury.” Others have strokes, lose their sense of smell or lose consciousness. All of those things point to ways COVID-19 can attack the brain — but mental health physicians are also looking at the possible psychological impact.
A paper published in The Lancet on April 21 about suicide risk and prevention during the COVID-19 pandemic warns that even people who do not have a history of mental health issues “might develop new mental health problems, especially depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress (all associated with increased suicide risk). These mental health problems will be experienced by the general population and those with high levels of exposure to illness caused by COVID-19, such as frontline health-care workers and those who develop the illness.”
Those concerns highlight something that Breen’s family has become passionate about — mental health support for healthcare workers. Since Breen’s suicide, the family started the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Fund to raise money for that cause.
Charlottesville Police Chief RaShall Brackney issued a statement after Breen’s death in his town, saying, “Frontline healthcare professionals and first responders are not immune to the mental or physical effects of the current pandemic. … On a daily basis, these professionals operate under the most stressful of circumstances, and the Coronavirus has introduced additional stressors.”