NYC ED doc on frontlines of the pandemic commits suicide: was it due to stress from COVID-19 or something else?
Sunday and Monday were among the few nice days this month in this Great White North. I gather the weather was similar on Sunday in Charlottesville where Dr. Lorna Breen took her own life. Dr. Breen was the medical director of the emergency department in a NYC hospital which has been particularly hard hit with the coronavirus. She was the ultimate COVID-19 responder and saved many lives. She was very close to her sister and mother in Charlottesville, according to news accounts, yet no one caught that depth of despair in her. What demons did she wrestle that caused her to end a very productive, helpful life? She did catch COVID-19 and recently recovered from it, but it emotionally crushed her. She was admitted to an in-patient psych unit and then went home to her sister and mother. At her sister's house, she shot herself in the head. Was her suicide due to stress of dealing with so much morbidity and mortality? Or was it a sequelae of the infection? We know that some infected people lose smell and taste, which suggests there might be neurological involvement in at least some people. Could it have affected her emotional state?
Docs can wear PPE to protect them from pathogens. But no armor can protect anyone from the Legion that can haunt an otherwise sane person. There is no PPE for despair. There is no vaccine for it. This is a truth that is revealed in times like this and a truth for which we are all vulnerable. It is the cold hard elegance of a nature that doesn’t care. We can see beauty in nature, but it can still grind us down with pathogens and despair. Sometimes both. We marvel at the beauty of flowers that attract both us and the pollinators who feed the queen, who then makes more pollinators. But, that beautiful nature is no different from the cold, mechanical nature that lets CoV-2 to attach to your respiratory and gut epithelium and even to your heart cells. That is not so beautiful.
Yet we plow on, believing, hoping that this too shall pass; believing that we will triumph over COVID like Ulysses triumphed over the Sirens by lashing himself to the ship's mast like a mythological version of PPE. And we must, for Lorna and the rest of us.