What is ECMO?

ECMO UnitExtracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) is a procedure that uses a machine to take over the work of the lungs and sometimes the heart. Extracorporeal means that the blood circulates outside of the body with the help of a machine. Membrane oxygenation, referred to as the “artificial lungs,” is a special part of the machine that puts oxygen into the blood and takes out carbon dioxide just like the lungs do normally. Although similar to a heart-lung machine that is used during open-heart surgery, ECMO therapy is intended for patients whose heart and lungs cannot normally function on their own. ECMO is used to provide intensive care for babies, children and adults. The two most common modes of ECMO are veno-venous (VV) where access is via a vein for patients who have suffered loss of the lungs exclusively and veno-arterial (VA) with dual access by a vein and the carotid artery for patients with both lung and heart impairment.

In the neonatal or pediatric intensive care unit, ECMO provides time for an infant or child’s body to rest and recover. ECMO is a complicated treatment, so it is used only for babies who are very sick with life-threatening conditions such as premature infants born with underdeveloped lungs who are expected to recover after treatment. A patient can be on ECMO for several days to a few weeks. When the heart or the lungs have healed and can work on their own, the support from ECMO is gradually removed.

Photo source: Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas.