In Brief

Coronavirus triggered a 'ruptured heart' in first reported US COVID-19 death

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An autopsy of the remains from the first known COVID-19 death in the U.S. has revealed that the person died from a ruptured heart triggered by the virus's attack, according to news reports.

The 57-year-old woman, Patricia Dowd of San Jose, California, died at home on Feb. 6 after experiencing flu-like symptoms, according to The Mercury News. Recently, an investigation into her death found that Dowd was actually infected with the new coronavirus, meaning that U.S. COVID-19 deaths had occurred weeks earlier than thought.

Dowd's death was initially thought to be the result of a heart attack. But now, an autopsy report shows that the virus had spread to Dowd's heart muscle, and the viral infection caused a valve in her heart to rupture, The Mercury News reported.

"The immune system was attacking the virus and in attacking the virus, it damaged the heart and then the heart basically burst," Dr. Judy Melinek, a forensic pathologist who was not involved with Dowd's case, told The Mercury News.

This type of heart rupture occurs more typically in people with high cholesterol levels or abnormalities in the heart muscle, Melinek said. But Dowd's case was very unusual because her heart was a normal size and weight, she said.

"There's something abnormal about the fact that a perfectly normal heart has burst open," Melinek told The San Francisco Chronicle. "Normal hearts don't rupture."

Dowd was reportedly in good health and exercised regularly before she fell sick.

Previous studies have noted a connection between COVID-19 and the heart, with one small study in China finding that more than 1 in 5 COVID-19 patients develop heart damage as a result of the infection, Live Science previously reported.

Originally published on Live Science. 

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Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.