ER doctor who died by suicide was in 'untenable' situation, sister says

Tim Stelloh

The sister of an emergency room doctor who died by suicide while helping fight the coronavirus pandemic said that before her death, Dr. Lorna Breen had been in an "untenable" situation.

In an exclusive interview with "TODAY's" Savannah Guthrie, Jennifer Feist said her sister was overcome by a grim combination of events. She contracted the virus, which Feist believed "altered her brain." Eventually, Breen returned to work.

"She went back to the most horrific, unimaginable conditions," Feist said, describing her sister as "somebody whose life's calling is helping people, and she just couldn't help enough people."

"And the combination was just untenable," Feist said.

Breen, 49, had worked at NewYork-Presbyterian Allen Hospital in northern Manhattan. Her father told The New York Times that after she got sick and returned to work a week and a half later, her family intervened and brought her to Charlottesville, Virginia.

Authorities said Monday that she was taken to UVA University Hospital, where she succumbed to self-inflicted injuries.

Before her death, Feist said, Breen had been working 12-hour shifts.

"She said it was like Armageddon," Feist said. "She said, 'There are so many sick people everywhere.'"

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

Feist added that Breen didn't want to give up.

"She would not let it break her, which, of course, it did," she said.

Feist said she was sharing her sister's story to let the public know that medical providers need support.

"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 OK to say that you're suffering. There's a stigma," she said.

"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," Feist said. "People need to be able to say they're suffering and to take a break."

Asked how she would like to remember her sister, Feist said, "The Lorna of the first 49 years was just so happy. And she had a deep faith, good friends. She loved her family. And that's how I'll remember her.

The hospital didn't immediately respond to a request for comment, but in a statement Monday it called Breen "a hero who brought the highest ideals of medicine to the challenging front lines of the emergency department."

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources