ECMO, or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, is an external machine that helps particularly sick patients whose heart and lungs need extra help to function better. Using a machine to do the work of the heart and lungs, ECMO removes carbon dioxide from the blood, resupplies it with oxygen, and recirculates it throughout the body.

Through tubes (cannulas) connected to major arteries and veins in the neck, chest or groin, ECMO does the work of the heart and lungs by removing carbon dioxide from the blood, resupplying it with oxygen and then recirculating it through the body.

People with impaired lung or heart function could be candidates for ECMO. Often, these patients will have acute cardiopulmonary disease or may be experiencing progressive organ failure and require mechanical support to help them recover.

For qualified patients, ECMO should be considered an early, active treatment option, rather than a "last resort" effort for those suffering from heart and lung shock.

ECMO offers several benefits to those with heart and/or lung failure. These include:

  • Biventricular support to the heart
  • Easier and faster implementation than other mechanical support solutions 
  • Faster recovery
  • Supports brain and organ function
  • Mechanical support for the heart and lungs

Like any medical treatment, ECMO poses some inherent risks, which include the chance of bleeding, stroke and infection. Our specialists take every precaution and monitor each patient closely for any signs of complications.

Venoarterial ECMO (VA) is for patients experiencing heart failure. With VA ECMO, blood is removed from the body through a vein and is oxygenated and returned through an artery. From there, it is circulated throughout the body, which reduces stress on the heart and lungs. VA ECMO is more invasive since it provides both heart-and-lung support, which means it has a slightly higher risk of complications.

Venovenous ECMO (VV) is for patients suffering from respiratory failure, including conditions such as pneumonia and Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS). Unlike VA ECMO, patients who need VV ECMO require only lung support. During VV ECMO, blood is taken from a vein for external oxygenation. A machine removes carbon dioxide to allow the lungs to rest, and the re-oxygenated blood is returned through a vein so the heart can pump oxygen-rich blood to the body.

People can remain on EMCO for anywhere from days to weeks, but the length of time depends on several factors, including their diagnosis, the severity of their condition and their response to the treatment.

EMCO is considered a "bridge" therapy. That means means it either provides an immediate solution while patients recover fully or helps them maintain heart and/or lung function until they are ready for the next-level of treatment, such as alternative mechanical support or an organ transplant. For cardiopulmonary disease, ECMO serves as a:

  • Bridge to Recovery: ECMO gives patients with acute cardiopulmonary disease a chance to rest and heal their heart and/or lungs if they receive treatment early enough. Some patients make a full recovery after ECMO and no longer need additional treatment.
  • Bridge to Ventricular Assist Device: For patients in cardiogenic shock or who are suffering from heart failure, ECMO can help stabilize the heart and organs. This helps prepare the heart and lungs for long-term ventricular support, such as a ventricular assist device (VAD).
  • Bridge to Transplant: ECMO can also be used for patients who are waiting for a heart or lung transplant. ECMO is the only mechanical lung support and the only option that can assist heart and lung function simultaneously.