WASHINGTON — All around the world, researchers are racing to develop treatments or a vaccine for the new coronavirus.

At George Washington University Hospital, the head of thoracic surgery has helped create a virtual reality scan that allows doctors to fly through the lungs of a local COVID-19 patient who is fighting for his life.

"It's very striking to see the various areas of infected tissue," Dr. Keith Mortman said, while watching the images on a screen.

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Even with two decades in lung surgery, Dr. Mortman said he was still shocked to see the new coronavirus rampaging through the lungs of a local man in his 50s who is struggling to survive. He had to be intubated and put on a respirator.

"Everything in yellow is abnormal," Dr. Mortman said while pointing at the scan. "So you can see how this is not confined to any one part of the lung. This affects both lungs, and it affects each lung diffusely, all different parts."

Working with Dr. Mortman, a California company called Surgical Theater processed images from a CT scan of the man's chest and created a virtual reality fly-through that allows all of us to see how the virus can infect your airways and inflame your immune system to try to fight it.

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"It's really those two together that are why these patients are presenting with progressive shortness of breath, why some of them need to be intubated and placed on a ventilator," Mortman said. "Those symptoms, what we're seeing, some of them are coming on very rapidly. This is the message I'm trying to get out to the public: We're hearing, 'We'll it's like the flu or it's like pneumonia,' and it's really not. It's nothing like either one of those." 

But will the virtual reality video actually benefit the patient?

 "It remains to be seen, in all honesty," Mortman said. "Certainly, in the health care provider aspect, it allows us to take a much better look at the process. And that's really what I've found most startling when I saw these pictures and saw this video for the first time." 

Dr. Mortman hopes the rest of us will see the video, and understand why all us need to do everything we can to slow the pandemic and save lives.

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