What Are We Learning From COVID-19?

This is my 100th blog entry. I couldn’t have predicted I’d still be writing after all this time, but it turns out I have a lot to say about how to care for patients and employees. 

Things have changed dramatically since COVID-19 hit and I’ve been thinking a lot about how to best care for staff who are showing up every day and working hard to save lives. 

The name Lorna Breen has been in the news a lot lately. She was an emergency medicine physician and the medical director of the emergency department at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan. I never met her, never even heard her name until her story hit the news a few weeks ago. But I think it’s important to write about her. There is so much we as healthcare leaders can learn from her story. 

According to an April 27th New York Times article, Dr. Breen had contracted the coronavirus, stayed home for just a week and a half, returned to work, was sent home, then went to stay with her family in North Carolina to recuperate. Upon arriving, she was hospitalized for exhaustion for 11 days, and once discharged, went to stay with her mom, then her sister. Two days later, Dr. Breen died by suicide. 

By all accounts, Dr. Breen was a fun-loving extrovert who enjoyed skiing, salsa dancing, throwing parties, and volunteering at a home for older adults. She was well liked, well respected and was always looking out for her colleagues, making sure they had enough personal protective equipment and were doing okay. 

Her family said that working in the trenches with so many patients dying from the virus changed her. She would be at the end of a 12-hour shift and stay to continue helping. With patients dying in the waiting room before they could even get into the ER, Dr. Breen had said they couldn’t keep up, she couldn’t go home, she had to stay and help. 

When you go into a profession in healthcare, you are compelled to help. When you run in when others run away, it’s normal to think that if you don’t do it, it won’t get done. But we have to start helping these professionals see that there’s no shame in putting the oxygen mask on your own face before helping others with theirs. 

I’m not going to lay blame at anyone’s feet. I’ll just say that we have to look out for each other and insist that people go home. Rest. Recharge. I’ve worked in so many environments that just don’t allow for that. If someone admits they’re exhausted or struggling to keep going, others turn their backs and make them feel guilty. We as leaders have to change that. 

Right now, we have healthcare workers, physicians, nurses, food service workers, housekeepers, IT professionals, and patient experience teams who are feeling vulnerable, frightened, and tired. We have to reach out. We have to let them know how much they mean to us and we do that not by hanging banners that say Hero, but by spending time with them. Let them talk. Listen without interrupting. Insist they go home and not stay past the end of their shift. Create programs that nurture and support them. Give them hazard pay and additional sick days. Don’t just tell them, show them how much we care.

I feel terrible that Dr. Breen took her own life. I’m hopeful that we learn from this and start creating a culture that acknowledges that physicians and nurses aren’t superheroes. They’re people who care. Let’s care for them.