ECMO: Heart and Lung Life Support

Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) is a life support therapy. It’s used if you’re critically ill with heart failure or lung failure and other treatments aren’t working.

The UI Heart and Vascular Center is internationally known for ECMO expertise. We’ve used ECMO to help patients from infants to adults for more than 20 years and have been named a Gold Level Center of Excellence. Our experts train medical professionals from all over the world in how to use ECMO.

While you’re on ECMO, we care for your family members, too. This family guide to ECMO provides in-depth information about how ECMO works, who’s on the care team, what to know about visiting, and much more.

Our approach to ECMO

If serious illness means that your lungs can’t get enough oxygen to your body, or if your heart isn’t able to pump enough blood, the ECMO machine takes over. It’s similar to the heart-lung machine that’s used during surgery.

ECMO isn’t a cure for any condition, but it takes the strain off your heart or lungs and gives them a chance to rest and heal.

When you’re on ECMO, your care team can lower the settings on your mechanical ventilator to give your lungs a break. They can also decrease the dosage of medications you’re on to help your heart and lung function.

What to expect if you need ECMO

Here’s what will happen if you need to be placed on ECMO:

  • While you’re under sedation, a highly trained physician places one or more plastic tubes into a large vein or artery in your chest, neck, or groin.
  • The ECMO pump pulls blood through the tube and pushes it into the machine’s artificial lung, or oxygenator.
  • The machine removes carbon dioxide from the blood and adds oxygen, then it warms the oxygenated blood before returning the blood to your body.
  • A team of providers oversees your ECMO therapy and addresses any complications immediately.
  • Nurses, perfusionists, and respiratory therapists care for you around the clock in the intensive care unit.
  • Our physical and occupational therapy experts develop a rehabilitation plan to help you heal faster and shorten your hospital stay.

Coming off ECMO

The length of time people need to stay on ECMO varies. Your care team monitors you closely. When they start to see your bloodwork and vital signs improve, they can turn down the pump flow to see whether your heart and lungs can do more work on their own.

When you’re ready, your team will wean you off ECMO, although you might still need a breathing tube and ventilator.

After you come off ECMO, you’ll work with therapists who will help you get stronger and healthier. Your team will include specialists in cardiac rehabilitation, pulmonary rehabilitation, physical therapy, speech-language therapy, and occupational therapy.

Who can benefit from ECMO?

Our teams provide ECMO for newborns, children, and adult patients who have life-threatening illnesses of the heart or lungs.

ECMO can help adults who have the following conditions:

  • Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)
  • COVID-19
  • Influenza
  • Injuries from burns or inhaling harmful substances
  • Pulmonary contusion (bruises on the lung)
  • Pulmonary embolism (blood clot in the lung)
  • Sepsis
  • Traumatic lung injury
  • Viral or bacterial pneumonia

ECMO can help children who have the following conditions:

  • Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)
  • Cardiac arrest
  • Heart failure
  • Drug overdose
  • Influenza
  • Life-threatening arrhythmias (heart rhythm disorders)
  • Myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle)
  • Pulmonary embolism
  • Pulmonary hypertension (high blood pressure in the lung) that’s resistant to treatment
  • Respiratory failure from an acute asthma attack
  • Sepsis

ECMO can help newborns who have the following conditions:

  • Congenital diaphragmatic hernia
  • Congenital heart disease
  • Meconium aspiration
  • Myocarditis
  • Persistent pulmonary hypertension
  • Pneumonia
  • Respiratory distress syndrome
  • Sepsis

A Gold Level ECMO Center of Excellence

The Extracorporeal Life Support Organization (ELSO) has named the UI Heart and Vascular Center an ECMO Center of Excellence with Gold Level standing. The award recognizes excellence and exceptional care.

Care Team