Lorna Breen and the Toll of COVID-19

Lorna M. Breen, MD

Lorna M. Breen

Over the weekend, Columbia University Irving Medical Center learned about the death by suicide of Lorna Breen, MD, assistant professor of emergency medicine at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, who had been working on the front lines of the pandemic since the beginning.

The tragedy of her death underscores the profound stress this pandemic is causing, showing that even the bravest are vulnerable. CUIMC established CopeColumbia to help employees talk about their experiences, ask questions, and obtain confidential guidance and practical suggestions from Columbia's psychiatry faculty. 

Below, Lee Goldman, MD, Dean of the Faculties of Health Sciences and Medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, shared his thoughts in a letter sent the CUIMC community on April 28:

Dear Colleagues,

The toll of COVID-19 includes not only the more than 55,000 who have died from the infection and its complications in the U.S., but also the enormous impact it has had on caregivers, families, and friends. At our CUIMC/NYP campus alone, more than 1,900 patients have been hospitalized for COVID-19 and more than 350 patients have died. We have lost a doctor and staff members, and I have already sent more than 30 condolence notes to employees whom we know have lost family members, sometimes more than one. Our sympathies for all of whom we are aware, for those about whom we may not be aware, and for those who remain ill are unbounded.

Over the weekend, we learned of the death of another one of our own, Dr. Lorna Breen, of suicide. Lorna was a true hero, and like our literally thousands and thousands of heroes reminds us that “protective equipment” goes beyond masks, gloves, and gowns to include doing our best to take care of ourselves and those around us. The tragedy of her death further underscores that we all should openly address our mental health needs and those of our colleagues during this crisis.

Pandemics inevitably generate stress, sadness, and even fear. My first memories about the effect of stress on medical professionals was when I learned as a youngster that a great uncle had a “nervous breakdown” while serving as a physician in Philadelphia during the Spanish flu outbreak and spent the remainder of his life hospitalized. The sadness of recalling patients who might have lived or had a better outcome if only we did something different is why I have saved discharge summaries from patients I saw during my internship. Our fears relate to the safety of ourselves and our loved ones, as well as to our worries that we may not live up to the high standards we hold for ourselves. I share these personal reflections not because they are necessarily unique but rather to emphasize that none of us should assume that the coping mechanisms we have developed and relied upon in the past will be sufficient in these unprecedented times. 

Last month, as we began to see the surge of critically ill coronavirus patients in our emergency departments and inpatient units, our Department of Psychiatry, through an initiative led by Dr. Lou Baptista, anticipated the need to provide counselling and emotional support to our faculty and staff, especially those on the front lines. With their guidance, CUIMC established CopeColumbia to fill this crucial gap. I urge you to use these resources and to encourage your colleagues to do so.  

What many of you do every day is truly heroic, but please remember that even heroes are not invulnerable and that asking for help is not a sign of weakness but rather a sign of self-awareness. The loss of Dr. Breen should reinforce our collective appreciation for each other, our recognition of the emotional as well as physical toll of this crisis, and the need to take care of ourselves and of one another.


If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit the online Lifeline Chat.