In early April 2020, when a team of pathologists with LSU Health and Sciences Center in New Orleans took the nation’s first in-depth look at COVID-19 deaths, they didn’t wait long to find the unexpected.
Dr. Sharon Fox, LSUHSC’s associate director of pathology research and development, recalls how the team was prepared to see problems in victims’ lungs, though they weren’t prepared for the extent. With nearly every one of the bodies examined, tiny blood vessels in the lungs were filled with clots.
The results were so alarming, Fox says the team released an early, preprint version of its study online, so other doctors wouldn’t need to wait for the formal publication. Once word of the study spread, physicians around the country began treating COVID patients with blood-thinning drugs, which is now standard practice.
It was foundational. This was information that a lot of COVID-19 physicians and researchers were waiting on.
The study stands as a milestone for the health center’s tradition of medical discovery and innovation. LSUHSC is the state's health sciences university leader. LSU Health New Orleans includes the School of Medicine with branch campuses in Baton Rouge and Lafayette. LSUHSC offers Louisiana's only school of dentistry and the only public school of public health, along with schools of allied health professions, nursing and graduate studies. LSU Health New Orleans faculty members provide care in hospitals and clinics throughout the region. Its biosciences research enterprise provides a significant impact on the regional economy.
The COVID autopsy series was performed at University Medical Center. Its autopsy suite, built after Hurricane Katrina, is one of the few hospitals nationwide that meets CDC standards for safely examining the bodies of COVID victims.
The team’s study yielded more key discoveries. Many of the patients had histories of other conditions like hypertension, obesity and chronic kidney disease. Most of the 22 bodies examined were Black patients, one of the first signs that African Americans were dying of COVID at rates disproportionately higher than other ethnic groups.
We were seeing changes that no one had described yet.
Doctors in China and along the American West Coast – an early hotspot of U.S. infections – suspected the virus attacked the heart, causing inflammation.
“Early studies didn’t show that,” says Vander Heide. “This finding is very important because it points to the fact that when you’re treating patients, you don’t have to concentrate on the heart as much as the lungs.”
In another crucial innovation, LSUHSC radiologists figured out how to turn chest x-rays into a makeshift COVID test. The team noticed a distinct pattern in the chest x-rays of infected patients.
After organizing a study of nearly 400 COVID patients, the team confirmed the connection. Chest x-rays and CT scans could provide a quick and cost-effective way to diagnose COVID patients. The technique was especially beneficial to areas with limited ability testing capacity or the ability to get quick test results.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has been especially tough on the people of New Orleans,” says Dr. John-Paul Grenier, an LSUHSC radiology resident who took part in the study. “We hope that the insights we’ve gained from studying this disease in our community can be used to help other communities across the globe.”