What is ECMO?

First Edition Extracorporeal Life Support 1993
First Edition Extracorporeal Life Support 1993

Noun [ek –moe]

An acronym for extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. Describes the technique used to support of patients with acute cardiac and/or respiratory failure.

ECLS: Extracorporeal Life Support

How many times have you been asked this question? Just how do you define it? How do you even explain it?? Especially to a friend, your mother, your hairdresser?

Defining ECMO is not an easy task…

ECMO is life support for very sick infants, toddlers, teenagers, and adults. All of these people have one thing in common: they are dying. Without the use of ECMO, they really might die.

ECMO uses an artificial heart and an artificial lung to help take over the work of the patient’s own heart or lung to allow them time to heal. This time is incredibly important because it allows modern medicine to work. It’s a temporary therapy, but can often last weeks. Sometimes, ECMO can even help a patient live long enough to be able to receive a transplant.

ECMO requires specific equipment to be present in order to perform the therapy. It requires a blood pump, an oxygenator, a heat exchanger, and pressure monitoring. The blood pump can be one of two types of blood pumps: a roller head or a centrifugal pump. Oxygenators may vary, but typically a PMP (? Need to define “PMP”) membrane with integral heat exchanger is utilized. The circuitry/ tubing is PVC tubing that is connected to a patient via cannulas or catheters that are placed in large vessels. These vessels can be veins or arteries. There is a great risk of clotting, so heparin must be used to help prevent this and allow the blood to move freely through the plastic ECMO circuit. However, the use of heparin brings a huge risk of bleeding, so careful monitoring is essential .

But…they don’t want the technical side, the ins and outs of pumps, tubing, and oxygenators. They want to know what you do…

So, tell them this: I am in the business of saving lives. Working with wonderfully brilliant people, using amazing technology and medicine. I am in the business of Hope.* I hope that my machine is the best there is. I hope that I know enough to save them. I hope every patient will live.

*Dedicated to Esperanza, whose name and life continue to inspire hope in all who are interested in the field of extracorporeal life support.

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