Coronavirus: United States' first COVID-19 victim died when 'heart basically burst' - pathologist

It's been described as "abnormal" by one pathologist.
It's been described as "abnormal" by one pathologist. Photo credit: Getty.

The woman believed to be the first person killed in the United States by COVID-19 died when her "heart basically burst", a forensic pathologist says.

Patricia Dowd, a 57-year-old woman from San Jose, California, died on February 6 when she had what seemed like a heart attack while suffering from the flu.

However, as The Mercury News reports, it was later discovered that Dowd had COVID-19. An autopsy has now found her heart ruptured as her body tried to fight back against the deadly SARS-CoV-2 virus. Her death is subsequently being recorded as the first from COVID-19 in the United States.

Speaking to The Mercury News, Dr Judy Melinek, a local forensic pathologist who reviewed Dowd's autopsy but didn't take part in it, said the woman's heart muscle became infected causing it to rupture.

"There's an indication the heart was weakened… The immune system was attacking the virus and in attacking the virus it damaged the heart and then the heart basically burst."

That was deemed "abnormal" by Dr Melinek when speaking to the San Francisco Chronicle. Dowd's heart was of a typical size and weight, even though the autopsy said she was "mildly obese". The doctor said ruptures like what Dowd experienced normally only happen in people with bad cholesterol levels. 

Another pathologist, Dr Andrew Connolly, also believed it's possible the virus or an autoimmune reaction caused the heart's inflammation. He said the woman had minor pneumonia.

Dowd's husband, who asked for the autopsy, said she was in good health before becoming unwell.

Officials say Dowd's diagnosis with COVID-19 shows that the illness was spreading around the country's west coast far earlier than previously suspected. The United States' first COVID-19 death was previously thought to have happened in late February in Washington. The death of man on February 17 has also since been linked to COVID-19.

The autopsy was completed on February 7 but not filed until late last week.