Dr. Lorna M. Breen was surrounded by scenes of chaos and death at New York-Presbyterian Allen Hospital that reminded her of a biblical apocalypse.
She told her family it was “like Armageddon.”
Hit by the coronavirus herself, she fought to recover and regain strength — so she could return to work as medical director of the emergency room at the center of the pandemic. On the last Sunday in April, she took her own life.
Was this tragedy caused by pressures at work or by damage from the virus?
“I know it in my heart, that it was both. She had COVID and I believe that it altered her brain. And then she went back to the most horrific, unimaginable conditions,” Jennifer Feist, the doctor’s sister, told NBC News.
“For somebody whose life’s calling is helping people, and she just couldn’t help enough people … the combination was just untenable,” she said. “I’m hearing so much, from people who work in healthcare, saying: ‘We always have to be brave. … It’s not OK to say that you’re suffering.’ ”
A school friend used the same faith-based term — “calling” — to describe the doctor’s view of her vocation. Mary Williams grew up with Breen at the First Baptist Church in Danville, Pa.
“She was brilliant,” she told the Daily Item, in the Susquehanna River Valley. “She had a bright light and she had a compassionate soul and was a lover of people. Becoming a doctor was her best calling.”
The coronavirus pandemic has caused stunning levels of stress for doctors, nurses, scientists and other first responders. This is true for religious believers and unbelievers, alike. Professionals are struggling with mental and physical exhaustion, as well as concerns about their own health and the safety of friends and family.
Nevertheless, the pandemic has put unique pressures on those who view their work as a “calling” rooted in their faith, said Rebecca Randall, science reporter for Christianity Today magazine. She recently published a feature in which she asked doctors and scientists — from the front lines in northern Italy to Oxford University in England — how they were striving to keep the faith during this crisis.
“A lot of them truly believe they are supposed to do something with this incredible challenge that God has given them,” she said, in a telephone interview. “For them, they have a special sense of calling to do this work. That helps give them strength, but it also can lead to a kind of weight of responsibility.”
The coronavirus crisis has added another painful wrinkle to this dilemma. “Shelter in place” rules continue, in many parts of the world, to prevent these believers from attending face-to-face worship services and fellowship inside the churches that provide their most dependable support networks.
It’s one thing for medical personnel to know that their congregations are praying for them. It’s something else to be able to hug people, cry on their shoulders and, in some cases, mourn at their funerals.
Randall corresponded with Dr. Julia Wattacheril, a New York City physician active in front-line triage work and research that, right now, is linked to efforts to understand COVID-19.
At one point, Wattacheril said she ventured out onto her roof where she “yelled at God” and prayed about her anger and loss of hope. Eventually, she decided that she had become “too concerned with the fruit” of her own labors and, thus, was feeling “anxious and distrustful of what God was doing.”
Wattacheril wrestles with her grief by praying, often while walking, as well as listening to sermons and music. It helps that her church community — via technology — has continued to “rally and remind me of what I tend to forget about myself as well as my well-worn Scripture verses with decades of history,” she said.
At this point, said Randall, many of these believers working in medicine and science have reached the “place where they are thinking about how God can still be in control, even if they now know that we are not in control of what is happening all around us.
“They at a place where they know that there is no quick solution. Right now, they are praying for a sense of hope that lets them carry on.”
Terry Mattingly (tmatt.net) leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.