In Memoriam: Dr. Lorna M. Breen (1970-2020)

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Dr. Lorna Breen in the NY Times, July 12, 2020

Lorna Breen was an ER doctor in New York City and the child of two doctors in Danville, Virginia.

At age 49, she was supervisor of the entire emergency department at NewYork-Presbyterian Allen Hospital in Upper Manhattan, unmarried, entirely devoted to serving others.  She attended a Presbyterian church and participated weekly in a Bible study group.

But in March and April, when the Covid-19 pandemic overwhelmed New York City, four things happened:

  1. She herself came down with the Covid influenza and tried to go back to work too soon.
  2. She entered a psychiatric hospital for help with trauma.
  3. She was released when she still wasn’t well and couldn’t think straight.
  4. She took her own life on April 26, 2020.

Today’s NY Times devotes two pages to her story.  Here’s the description of the emergency room she was coping with. “The emergency department was clogged with about triple the number of patients it could normally accommodate.”

Intubated patients on stretchers jammed the halls. Portable oxygen tanks operating at their highest capacity petered out at an alarming pace. An area meant for X-rays housed the bodies of those who had taken their final gasps while waiting to be saved.
One man, seemingly stable and about to be transferred to a different unit, was found dead in a chair, his skin blue.

“There’s evidence that working in a situation she could not fix or solve with a clear-cut strategy would have been exceptionally challenging for her,” conclude Corina Knoll, Ali Watkins, and Michael Rothfeld, who interviewed her colleagues and family to write this article.

This virus can damage the brain, making normal planning and analysis difficult.

One friend, Anna Ochoa, shared reflections on her last phone conversation with Lorna.  She heard her repeating:

I couldn’t help anyone. I couldn’t do anything. I just wanted to help people, and I couldn’t do anything.”

Dr. Breen’s family believes that her death should be counted among those caused by Covid-19.

Yes, indeed.  Her trauma matters.

Furthermore, I wish she had been immunized with a strong dose of Al-Anon teaching.  Here are some of the principles we learn:

“God, give me the courage to accept the things I cannot change, the strength to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

“Draw a circle around yourself and take care of what’s inside it–only.”  That is, take care of yourself.

Some of us are addicted not to alcohol or drugs but to helping others.  It’s painful to admit that we can’t help someone, that we are not God.  We have a God-complex.  

If we have an important job and high social status, it’s painful to fall from that pedestal.

Doctors don’t like to be patients, just as news reporters don’t like to have their own affairs in the headlines.

A crisis in my mental health is not as socially acceptable as being felled by a virus or a cancer.

May Lorna Breen not die in vain.  May others crushed by this Covid crisis learn to take care of themselves.  May they be okay with taking a month off, a year off from work.

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).

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