For some people, though, the COVID infection will not be contained and it will move to the lower respiratory tract where more serious complications may occur. When lung function becomes compromised, those infected can experience difficulty breathing and shortness of breath. Oxygen therapy in hospital is often required.
However, sometimes the lung damage becomes so severe that fluid exudate forms in the alveoli of the lungs, blood oxygen levels fall and respiration CO2
(carbon dioxide) can no longer
be removed from the blood. This life-threatening pneumonia can lead rapidly to death. Assisting lung function with active ventilation, usually carried out in an intensive care unit (ICU) in hospital, can buy time for recovery. But this doesn’t always succeed. Death can result from respiratory failure or the failure of other essential organs.
Those most likely to develop these life-threatening COVID complications are the elderly, particularly males, and/ or those with ‘pre-existing health conditions’ (eg. those with immune compromise, diabetes and hypertension). This is the same demographic who is often seeking information on end of life choices and who are members of Exit. The type of death that one may expect from COVID-19 pneumonia is described below.
Although death from pneumonia is often referred to as ‘the old person’s friend’, a death from a COVID pneumonia seems far from friendly. The original pneumonia reference comes from William Osler in the 1899 edition of his famous text, Principle and Practice of Modern Medicine. In this landmark book he describes a pneumonic death as being ‘taken off by it in an acute, short, not often painful illness, the old man [sic] escapes those “cold gradations of decay” so distressing to himself and his friends.’