Because of the tireless efforts of Corey Feist ’95, his wife, Jennifer, and her family, The Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act became the first legislation of its kind to allocate funds for grants designed to train health care students and professionals in evidence-informed strategies to reduce and prevent suicide, burnout, mental health conditions, and substance-use disorders. The law, which was signed in March 2022 and received bipartisan support, will invest $135 million over three years into this work. Read about the signing (story via Forbes) and read our original story, written in August 2020.
In their devastating grief, Corey Feist ’95, his wife, Jennifer Feist, and her family were confronted almost immediately by a dilemma: heed their inclination to stay silent about the suicide of Jennifer’s sister, Dr. Lorna Breen, or speak out about the circumstances.
Breen, 49, was an accomplished physician who headed the emergency department at a Manhattan hospital hit hard by COVID-19. She worked nearly nonstop until she herself contracted the virus. Fighting back from that, she returned to work where critically ill and dying patients were overwhelming the ER. Breen, too, was overwhelmed, Feist says, so much so that she needed to seek mental-health treatment in a residential facility. Until then, she’d had no known or suspected mental-health issues, her family says.
Treatment completed, Breen went to stay with her family in Charlottesville, Va., where she died by suicide on April 26, 2020. The next day, The New York Times published a story about her death, and her family knew that was just the beginning of media attention. Amid the barrage of pandemic news stories, this one stood out. As difficult as it would be, the family decided to step forward to talk about the issue of mental-health care for physicians.
Two and a half days after Breen’s death, Jennifer and Corey Feist taped a wrenching segment for The Today Show with Savannah Guthrie. Jennifer, with her husband at her side, steadily answered questions about the remarkable sister she’d just lost.
Before the interview aired, the family created a fund, held by the Charlottesville Area Community Foundation, to provide mental-health support to physicians and others in the medical field. “After the interview aired on April 30, 2020, we received a flood of support from health-care providers thanking us for shining a light on the need to provide mental-health support to the health-care workforce,” Feist says. They’d also brought to light the impact of the cultural stigma associated with health-care providers who obtain mental-health care.
As chief executive officer of the University of Virginia Physicians’ Group, one of Feist’s primary concerns for a decade has been physician burnout. But not until Breen’s suicide did Feist and his wife realize what they call a dark secret — that there is a stigma in health care attached to taking a break and seeking mental-health care. The stigma is reinforced in many states by licensing requirements to disclose treatment, and for physicians that can jeopardize their career, Feist says.
Breen expressed that fear leading up to her death; she was terrified that she’d lose her job and her career for seeking treatment. “So what we came to learn was, for many doctors, that is exactly the case,” Feist says.
In their research, he and Jennifer learned that more than 400 physicians die by suicide every year, that female physicians die by suicide at a higher rate than men, and that emergency medicine is one of the highest-risk specialties for suicide.
Determined to make a difference, Feist and Jennifer, who are both lawyers, co-founded a more ambitious effort than the initial family fund: the Dr. Lorna Breen Heroes’ Fund. Its mission is to protect and preserve the well-being of physicians and health care providers everywhere. The central goal is to change the culture about treatment.
Read about other alumni who are making an impact in their professions and communities throughout the world.
With the backing of Breen’s family, on July 29, 2020, U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia co-introduced “The Dr. Lorna Breen Healthcare Provider Protection Act."
In the months since Breen's death, many media outlets have covered her story, including a July 11, 2020, profile in The New York Times. Her family feels good about generating awareness of the problem and about the outpouring of support for the cause. “So, in that way, we know we're doing the right thing,” Feist says. “It's really hard, but we couldn't feel more positive about the fact that what we’re doing is right and needs to happen.”