Heart Center: ECMO

The use of a special machine, similar to the bypass equipment used during open-heart surgery, to take over the work of the heart and lungs.

Since 1990, Children’s has provided more than 500 patients with life saving extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) support. In 2009, 25 patients were placed on ECMO, and of these, 43 percent were for cardiac support.

Children's Heart Center has an active extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) program (5-40 cases per year) for children with cardiac and cardiopulmonary diseases. ECMO is a special procedure that uses an artificial heart-lung machine similar to the bypass equipment used during open-heart surgery to take over the work of the heart and lungs.

The ECMO machine is actually three parts working in concert to properly oxygenate your child's blood, a pump (artificial heart), an artificial lung and a blood warmer. The process involves the machine taking the blood without oxygen, the "blue" blood, from the right side of the heart, and pumping it through the artificial lung, the oxygenator. Once the blood is oxygenated, or "red," it is warmed before returning to the patient.

The dedicated team of 10 ECMO coordinators is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week and can have the equipment ready for a patient within 20 to 30 minutes.

At the start of the ECMO procedure, the machine performs most of the work for the patient's heart and lungs, allowing them time to rest and recover function. The patient also will receive ventilator support.

An increase in the oxygen level of the blood indicates the lungs are healing. Progressively, the ECMO machine will be lowered until it is only responsible for a small portion of the heart and lung's work.

More than 25 additional ECMO team members composed of registered nurses and registered respiratory therapists comprise the team specially trained to care for up to five patients on ECMO at a time. Children’s is one of only a few medical centers in the country with a team of seven ECMO specialists uniquely trained to both place a patient on ECMO and to provide emergency resuscitation with ECMO when necessary.

Parents should ask:

  • How much experience does this hospital have with cardiac ECMO?
  • How many ECMO cases are completed each year?
  • How many dedicated ECMO specialists are on staff?
  • What are the hospital’s outcome statistics for patients treated with ECMO?
  • Is ECMO available 24 hours a day for emergency resuscitations?
  • Is ECMO available if my child's surgeon is unavailable?