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Tuesday, March 15, 2022

OPINION:

While the COVID-19 pandemic has been life-changing for so many, arguably the greatest toll has been on our health care workforce.

It’s no secret that our nation’s doctors, nurses’ aides, and all hospital personnel have stepped up in heroic ways during the pandemic, treating and healing sick patients and preventing healthy ones from contracting the virus. But, even before the pandemic began, our health care heroes had been quietly dealing with the mental toll of saving lives, and often, facing the trauma of losing them.


Even before the first case of coronavirus hit the United States, a report from Harvard Global Health Institute found that more than three-quarters of physicians experience feelings of burnout. Alarmingly, health care workers have one of the highest suicide rates of any profession, with over one million Americans losing a physician to suicide each year.

It’s clear now that our health care heroes have been experiencing two public health emergencies—COVID-19 and a widespread mental health crisis.

During the height of the pandemic, jam-packed emergency rooms filled with infected patients in the absence of personal protective equipment only magnified the problem. Doctors and nurses, and other health care workers experienced sleepless nights, 12-hour or longer shifts, and the constant fear that they themselves would contract the virus and pass it to their loved ones.

Caregivers were trapped in an endless cycle of stress without the proper mental health resources to provide relief. They were physically and mentally exhausted —yet answering the need of their country and communities remained their priority.

The consequence of their selflessness was a mental health crisis borne by health care providers in silence.

One of these was Dr. Lorna Breen, an emergency room physician in New York City, the epicenter of COVID’s first wave. Like the rest of the country’s health care workforce, she worked around the clock treating patients despite an insufficient amount of PPE, supplies, oxygen, and hospital beds. She went days without sleep. And despite contracting COVID herself, Lorna’s patients never left her mind. Sadly, Lorna died by suicide on April 26, 2020, while taking a brief respite with her family in Virginia.

I’ll never forget hearing her story and knowing that something needed to be done immediately.

Because the truth is, while our country and economy have begun to rebuild and recover, our frontline health care providers will carry the psychological trauma of their service for the rest of their lives.

I introduced the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act as a show of gratitude to Lorna, and every health care provider who bore the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their proximity to the virus and traumas that predate the pandemic need to be addressed head on.

My bill, which has passed the House, Senate, and which President Biden will soon sign into law, establishes training and other resources for health professionals to prevent suicide and burnout and increase awareness about mental health concerns among health care professionals. It will fund a comprehensive study on health care professional mental and behavioral health, including the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on such professionals’ health. Each of these measures are critical and could be the difference between life and death for our workforce experiencing burnout, depression, and anxiety. Most of all, the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act will demonstrate to our valuable medical workers that the country knows of their sacrifices and stress, and that we want to help.

I want to thank the Dr. Lorna Breen Foundation and her family for their work to honor Lorna’s legacy and protect the next generation of health care workers from suffering in silence.

When the next public health crisis inevitably strikes, our health care heroes will be there to step up to the challenge, but this time, with a system to take care of them too.

• U.S. Representative Susan Wild, Pennsylvania Democrat, is a mother, attorney, public servant, and a dedicated mental health advocate who represents the 7th Congressional District. On March 4th, she announced the reintroduction of the Dr. Lorna Breen Health Care Provider Protection Act, comprehensive, bipartisan legislation to reduce and prevent suicide, burnout, and mental and behavioral health conditions among health care professionals. The U.S. Senate passed the bill in February, and it will soon be signed into law.


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