The ECMO Machine

ECMO is an abbreviation for "extra-corporeal membrane oxygenation". ECMO is an advanced life support technique used for patients with life-threatening heart and/or lung problems. ECMO provides long-term breathing and heart support and is used only when all of the standard treatments for those problems have already been tried. A highly specialized treatment, ECMO can support patients for days to weeks while doctors treat their underlying illness. 

ECMO is used only after medicine and a breathing machine (ventilator) have failed to make your loved one better. During ECMO, patients appear to be better, but you need to know that the person is still very sick. Your loved one needs the ECMO machine for life support. The ECMO machine works for the heart and lungs. It is the same heart/lung machine used for open-heart surgery. When your loved one is placed on ECMO, blood will flow through the ECMO tubing where it receives oxygen from the machine’s lung. This happens until the heart and/or lungs are able to work on their own

Blood flows through the tubes, by gravity, and is pushed along by the turning motion of the pump. How fast the blood goes depends on how fast the pump turns. This flow number may be high at the beginning meaning the machine is doing most of the work. As a loved one gets better, the flow will slowly be decreased because less support is needed. The amount of time this takes depends on how the heart and lungs heal. Beyond the pump, the blood goes to the machine’s lung that puts oxygen in the blood and takes out carbon dioxide. The blood is then warmed to body temperature and given back to your loved one through the arterial or one portion of the tube. You will notice that the blood coming from your loved one will be dark because it contains little oxygen. The blood going back in will be bright red because it carries lots of oxygen. The blood is taken out and given back at the same speed so your loved one’s body doesn’t miss the blood going through the tubing.

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