Lorna Margaret Breen was an American physician who was the emergency room director at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. She died by suicide in 2020, while taking a break with family in Charlottesville, Virginia during the coronavirus pandemic.
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.”
Almost two years since Lorna Breen died by suicide after becoming overwhelmed working on the front lines of the pandemic, a bill named in her memory to boost mental health resources for health-care workers is headed to the president’s desk.
The death, by suicide, of a dedicated frontline caregiver, gave rise to a national movement, led by her family, that revealed the toll associated with service during the pandemic and the stigma of mental health challenges faced by physicians.
Dr, Breen was a highly regarded Emergency Physician, practice leader, educator, and leader who contracted, and fell ill from workplace exposure to COVID-19. She recovered from most of the physical ailments, but not from the mental anguish associated with diminished capacity and depression. Her death was a wake-up call to the house of medicine, and the leaders in Emergency Medicine, along with her family and key legislators, used her story to help create an enduring legacy that holds out hope of saving the lives of other healthcare heroes.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee today passed by voice vote a modified version of the AHA-supported Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act (H.R. 1667). The changes align the House bill with the version passed by the Senate in August (S. 610).
Named for a doctor who led the emergency department at New York-Presbyterian Allen Hospital, the bipartisan legislation would authorize grants to create programs that offer behavioral health services for front-line health care workers. It would also require the Department of Health and Human Services to study and recommend strategies to address health care provider burnout and facilitate resiliency; launch a campaign encouraging health care workers to seek assistance when needed; and require the Government Accountability Office to report to Congress on the extent to which federal substance use disorder and mental health grant programs address SUD and mental health conditions among health professionals.
The resulting affirmation that a serious problem exists, that its effect is widespread and destructive, that the shame and risk associated with self-revealing a condition regarded as “weakness” prevents people from getting help, and the recognition of a human response to stress combined to spur the country to action.
“The American Medical Association commends Congress for passing the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act. We mourn Dr. Breen and take solace that her death prompted a desperately needed effort to focus on the mental health of physicians.
“During the pandemic, the AMA helped develop several different pieces of legislation focused on identifying burnout and promoting the mental health needs of physicians. The legislation passed today will establish a public awareness campaign to encourage physicians to care for their mental health and authorize grants to establish evidence-based programs dedicated to improving mental health and resiliency for health care professionals.
“These issues have always been present in medicine, and the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed them to the forefront. The AMA is grateful the Breen family advocated for this legislation, and that Congress listened. It is a fitting legacy for Dr. Breen.”
This, then is Dr. Breen’s gift to those who step into the breach in her absence.
Chief Operating Officer