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Advanced Help for the Heart & Lungs

April 13th, 2017


Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) is a temporary support system for patients with severe respiratory or cardiac failure, a measure used to help the heart and lungs rest and heal. Developed as an offshoot of cardiopulmonary bypass and the membrane oxygenator, ECMO can be used in patients of all ages (newborn to adult). ECMO is a support, not a treatment, and it’s only beneficial in patients whose primary disease is reversible. But it gives a patient’s heart and lungs an opportunity to heal that wouldn’t otherwise be available. 

How does it work?

ECMO removes blood from a person’s body and artificially removes the carbon dioxide while infusing the red blood cells with oxygen. Most often, it’s used later in treatment for heart or lung failure as a life-sustaining intervention. In simpler terms, it provides support to a person’s heart and lungs that are so damaged they can’t do their job properly. ECMO is a temporary measure that allows doctors to address the problem while also letting the heart and lungs take a rest. 

When do doctors choose ECMO?

ECMO is an advanced, life-saving technology that’s the last treatment option when all other options have run out. It’s used when conventional therapies have failed to support the function of the heart and lungs adequately and when there’s a very high risk of death. It may be used to bridge patients with heart failure as they await heart transplantation or placement of a ventricular assist device, a mechanical pump that’s used to increase the amount of blood that flows through the body. Here are some other times when ECMO may be used: 

  • When patients are recovering from heart failure, or lung failure or heart surgery.
  • As a bridge option to further treatment, when doctors want to assess the state of other organs such as the kidneys or brain before performing heart or lung surgery.
  • When support is needed during high-risk procedures in the cardiac catheterization lab.
  • While a patient is awaiting an operation for a heart assist device, such as left ventricular assist device (LVAD).
  • When patients are awaiting lung transplant. In this case, ECMO helps keep tissues well oxygenated, which makes the patient a better candidate for transplant. 

Understanding the Procedure 

When a patient is placed on ECMO, it requires a surgical procedure that’s usually done in a patient’s room. After being sedated and given medication for pain and to minimize blood clotting. The surgeon inserts the ECMO catheters into either an artery or veins, and an x-ray is taken to ensure they’re in the right place. Most often, a person on the ECMO pump will also be on a ventilator, giving the lungs that break they need to heal. 

While a patient is on ECMO, the patient is monitored around the clock by a team of specially trained nurses and respiratory therapists, in addition to the surgeon and surgical team. Before ECMO is discontinued, multiple tests are completed to make sure the patient’s heart and lungs are ready. Then the patient is removed from ECMO through another surgical procedure to remove the tubes. 

The Most Advanced Care - Right Here in Chattanooga

ECMO isn’t a miracle treatment, and it’s only used in the very sickest of patients. But it’s just one more option for recovery that’s available to patients of University Surgical Associates in emergent situations. If you’d like to read about an amazing story of survival and recovery that included ECMO treatment, please click here >>>. Paige Davis, mom of Chase, tells his harrowing story, his fight for life, and the many people who supported him in his recovery along the way. 

You have a choice when it comes to surgical care. For more information or to schedule an appointment for consultation, call (423) 267-0466.  

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