• Michelle Dickinson

This is what the lung of a patient with severe COVID-19 looks like

COVID-19 has consumed us months and while scientists are learning more about it every day, there is still so much that we don't know. One thing that we do know is that sadly, some patients don't survive the virus and the lungs seem to be one of the most severly affected organs. The typical process that medical researchers go through when studying how fatal disases affect the body is to carry out an autopsy after a patient has passed. The sars-cov-2 virus however is highly infectious making carring out an autopsy on a COVID-positive body risky. While a few have been carried out using special protective equipment and high-containment rooms, most patients who don't survive COVID-19 are bypassed by the coroner or medical examiner's office and go straight to the funeral home to minimise the risk to autopsy staff. 

Severe cases of COVID-19 can result in hospitalisation and can lead to severe and permanent damage to the lungs. The body resonds to the invading virus by rushing white blood cells to the area to attack the virus. This can cause the alveoli or air sacs in the lungs to become leaky and the fluid build-up can put pressure on the alveoli from the outside. The virus destroys pneumocytes which are cells in the lung that produce surfactants needed

to keep the air sacs open. This lack of surfactant causes parts of the lung to collapse.

One of the patients that this happened to was a woman in her 20’s who prior to contracting COVID-19 had been healthy with no serious underlying medical conditions. She developed a severe case of COVID-19 that resulted in her spending two months in intensive care on a ventilator and an ECMO which pumps and oxygenates blood outside of the body. Cavities formed inside her lungs which became infected with bacteria and even though she was eventually able to clear the coronavirus from her body, the irreversible damage to her lungs meant that she remained in a severe condition. Doctors at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago knew that the patient would not be able to survive and performed the first successful double lung transplant on a COVID-19 patient. The photo to the left shows a piece of her lung tissue and the permanent damage done as a result of the virus. This is one of the first images seen by the public showing how much damage COVID-19 can create in the body and why what starts as a shortness of breath can lead to death of the patient as their body is unable to get air into their air sacs. A normal lung from a patient in their 20's would look pink, and filled with holes. While this patient is still recovering and will have a long road ahead it's one more example of how COVID-19 is not "just like the flu" it is a serious pandemic that needs to be taken seriously. Full press release and other images from Northwestern Memorial Hospital can be accessed at https://www.nm.org/about-us/northwestern-medicine-newsroom/press-releases/2020/lung-transplant-performed-on-covid-19-patient-at-northwestern-medicine

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2019 by Michelle Dickinson