I’d like to share a personal story. It was November, 2018, and our son was getting married. It was a wonderful day, and I was working. How did I not prioritize what mattered most to me – my family? I thought focusing on work every day no matter what was normal and what was expected of me – it didn’t even occur to me to say no. And 6 months later, I did it again!
Then COVID happened. And is still happening. There was a lot of uncertainty, grief, and fear; so much was out of our control – the political climate, masking, climate change, vaccines. Yet life went on. We had babies and grandbabies, we cared for aging parents, and we even lost beloved friends and family members. We dealt with our own mental and physical health. And, let’s be honest, pre-pandemic, we probably weren’t doing as well as we believed we were: We were already living in chaos, we weren’t being honest about our experience, we were afraid to ask for help, and I was afraid to raise my hand and say, “I’m not going to work today. My son is getting married, and I’m going to be fully present.”
In March of this year I moderated the Wellbeing Series: Thriving in Healthcare Today. This series was created to intentionally focus on what our best days in medicine can look like – how we can get back to meaningful joy and purpose both at work and at home; how to prioritize what matters most in a time of great uncertainty and not be afraid to ask for help.
I met Corey Feist, a healthcare executive and the co-founder of the Doctor Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation, at a burnout symposium in San Francisco. While chatting about the loss of Corey’s sister-in-law, Dr. Lorna Breen, and one of my sons (both to suicide), we connected on a deeper level through that shared experience of grief and pain. And we were both working to make things better – Corey through his foundation, and me with my responsibilities for physician and APP experience and well-being at Intermountain Healthcare.
Corey began his quest to help raise awareness about the importance of mental wellness among healthcare professionals to honor his sister-in-law, Lorna Breen. Dr. Breen was the medical director of a very busy ER in a New York City hospital during the opening surge of the COVID pandemic. Despite contracting COVID and quarantining herself, she returned to the ER and kept going, working 15 – 18 hours a day, until she “couldn’t get out of her chair.” She checked herself into the inpatient psychiatric unit at the University of Virginia. After an 11-day hospitalization, Dr. Breen was convinced she would lose her medical license because she sought mental health treatment, even though it was the first and only behavioral treatment she had ever received. Five days after her discharge, Lorna died by suicide.
The Feists were thrust into the limelight following an article that highlighted Lorna’s death. They had no choice but to expose the significance they believed COVID played in Lorna’s mental health and to encourage physicians and healthcare workers to be unafraid to seek treatment or support for their mental well-being. In June of 2020, the Doctor Lorna Breen Heroes’ Foundation was created to build awareness, advocate for medical professionals, and advance solutions to help reduce burnout and increase quality of life. Additionally, the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act passed in the U.S. Senate and the House and was recently signed into law by President Biden. The legislation will “allocate specific funds towards grants for training health profession students, residents, or health care professionals in evidence-informed strategies to reduce and prevent suicide, burnout, mental health conditions, and substance use disorders.” Corey says, “When the unspeakable happens to you, and you speak of it, it gives others permission to speak of it, too.” This sentence resonated with me on both a personal and professional level.
At Intermountain Healthcare, I have been working on a resilience-based approach to physician and healthcare worker well-being. I have come to believe one of the greatest “gifts of COVID” is the realization that the issues surrounding burnout were around well before the pandemic but have now been amplified and brought to the forefront to be addressed. My mantra has become “Without caregiver well-being, there’s no way we can take care of our own patients.”
Intermountain strongly believes in taking care of healthcare caregivers first and is looking at ways to provide innovative well-being programs to promote work/life integration to help caregivers succeed. Dr. Mason Turner, Senior Medical Director of Behavioral Health, has been working to coordinate, align, and partner to improve well-being and mental health of our clinicians and caregivers throughout and across the Intermountain system and community. We recognize the importance of providing avenues for caregivers to seek and obtain mental wellness care as easily and confidentially as possible.
So, going forward, what can we do differently? What do we need to think about as we seek to become our best selves at work and at home? We have had a period of intense emotions and grief. And I have experienced tremendous joy these past 2 years with the birth of our two grandchildren. I continue to remind myself that I can hold joy and grief at the same time. I also want to remember and acknowledge what we’ve experienced, take that information to learn together, and to think forward to our hopes for the future. Physicians and nurses die by suicide at rates twice that of the national average, and burnout increases the risk of medical errors by 200%. It is essential to find a path to joy and resilience for the future success and health of our providers.
The pandemic has taken a toll on us all the last two years. We all have our stories of stress, frustration, grief, burnout, and the desire to just give up, but also of joy and hope. Sometimes a story shared can give us the strength to recognize that we are not alone, allow us to forgive ourselves and others, and then share our unique experiences. It is my hope that my story and Dr. Breen’s story will encourage you to reach out to friends, family, co-workers, or other professionals to help you thrive in your work and personal lives – to find happiness, meaningfulness, self-worth, self-efficacy, and satisfaction. There is hope, and there is help.