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New law, prompted by this doctor's death, could help others struggling with mental health

Posted at 12:41 PM, Mar 02, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-02 12:41:16-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- Dr. Lorna Breen loved caring for others. Medicine and family were the cornerstones of her life. But the physical and emotional toll of serving on the COVID-19 frontlines as the Emergency Room Director at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City proved to be too much.

Breen, who had experienced an unfathomable amount of loss of life during her shifts early in the pandemic, contracted the virus herself and was sent into quarantine.

When she returned to work, still physically weak from the virus, the mental anguish of experiencing more chaos, illness, and death, forced Breen to seek psychiatric help at the University of Virginia.

The facility was close to Breen’s family.

Exhausted and devastated that she was unable to help others, and reeling from the mortification of needing mental health help herself, Breen died by suicide on April 26, 2020, at her family home.

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Now, nearly two years later, recently-passed legislation in Breen’s name is aimed at helping thousands of other healthcare workers.

The Dr. Lorna Breen Healthcare Provider Protection Act was passed by both the House and Senate, and now awaits President Biden’s signature.

“Lorna would be delighted right now,” Breen’s brother-in-law Corey Feist said. “Having it named after Lorna, who cared so deeply about her colleagues and truly worried about their wellbeing above her own, this is really an extension of her light.”

The legislation, introduced in July 2020 by Sen. Tim Kaine, (D-Virginia) will provide grants, in-depth studies, and public awareness campaigns to help spur change in the field of healthcare, where burnout, addiction, and suicide have long been unaddressed issues.

Kaine said the COVID pandemic has exasperated the problem to the point that doctors and nurses are leaving the field of medicine, despite being referred to as heroes in their communities.

“The mental health side of this is going to take years, if not decades to get through,” Kaine said. “Sometimes it’s harder for someone on a pedestal to say ‘I need help.’ We should call them healers- that’s the compliment- and then make sure they have the resources they need so they can get help when they need it.”

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Sen. Tim Kaine (D - Virginia)

Dr. Gail Gazelle, M.D., Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Master Certified Coach for physicians, said healthcare workers are often the hardest of themselves.

“Unfortunately, one in two physicians experience burnout, causing painful emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and disconnection from a sense of meaning and purpose. Not only does this erode their own well-being but numerous studies document that physician burnout contributes to increased medical errors, decreased empathy for patients, and physician shortages due to attrition from the profession,” Dr. Gazelle said.

A recent Medscape survey showed that one in five doctors and two out of five nurses are contemplating leaving the workforce.

Many said they were reluctant to seek help for the fear of losing their jobs or licenses to practice medicine.

“This goes very, very deep to the point where this was one of the reasons why Lorna took her life,” Feist said.

While New York Law allows mental health help for healthcare workers, Feist said Breen was not aware of that.

Specifically, the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act will establish grants for health profession schools, academic health centers, and other institutions to help them train health workers in strategies to prevent suicide, burnout, mental health conditions, and substance abuse disorders.

It will also identify and disseminate evidence-informed best practices for reducing and preventing mental health conditions among healthcare professionals.

The legislation also establishes a national evidence-based education and awareness campaign targeting healthcare professionals to encourage them to seek support and treatment for mental and behavioral health concerns. Grants for healthcare providers will also support employee education, peer-support programming, and mental and behavioral health treatment plans.

As a result of federal stimulus funds, 46 institutions have already received grants totaling $103 million.

In Virginia, George Mason University, the University of Virginia Medical Center, and Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center all received stimulus funding.

After Breen’s suicide, Jennifer and Corey Feist started the Lorna Breen Heroes Foundation. They now travel the country meeting with healthcare providers and groups to advocate for change.

“That recognition is what we’re hearing from across the healthcare community. That ‘thank you, thank you, someone sees us,’” Feist said. “That, more than anything right now, is critical and now we just need to make it a movement and not a moment in time.”

Breen’s family hopes to hold a public celebration when the bill gets the president’s signature and to recognize the sacrifices made by Breen and so many other healthcare professionals across the country.

“Like many who lost a loved one during the pandemic, we had a private celebration of her life with five people in our backyard after she died,” Feist said. “We need to celebrate this law and celebrate Lorna and we’re hoping we can do that.”

This segment is sponsored by WHOA Behavioral Health.