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ECMO

ECMO therapy helps when your heart and lungs are too weak to work. A life-support ECMO machine takes over these physical functions, to help your body rest, heal, and grow stronger.

Allegheny Health Network (AHN) Cardiovascular Institute offers advanced ECMO care at Allegheny General Hospital (AGH). Our critically ill patients have a survival rate higher than the national average, according to the Extracorporeal Life Support Organization (ELSO).

Allegheny General Hospital is one of the best ECMO centers in the country. As an ELSO Center of Excellence, our program received a Gold Level ELSO Award for Excellence in Life Support.

What is ECMO?

In a healthy person, the heart and lungs work together to circulate blood throughout the body. When these organs are failing, an Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) machine takes over that work. (Extracorporeal means “outside the body.”)

The ECMO pump:

  • Pulls blood out of the body into an artificial lung.
  • Supplies oxygen to the blood and removes carbon dioxide.
  • Warms the blood, now a healthy bright red, and returns it to the body.

ECMO serves as a temporary, artificial heart and lungs. It is much like a crutch that provides support for a broken leg as the bone mends. Using ECMO lets your heart and lungs rest and heal.

Two types of ECMO

  • Veno-arterial (VA) ECMO gives heart and breathing support to patients until they are strong enough to fully recover or have another operation.
  • Veno-venous (VV) ECMO involves only lung support. It provides oxygen and removes carbon dioxide from blood in the veins.

Who needs ECMO?

You might need ECMO if you have a very weak heart or lungs, due to a massive heart attack, cardiogenic shock, a long bout of pneumonia, heart disease, or a virus.

ECMO is sometimes a final option for patients. It gives them a chance of survival when all other treatments have failed.

A bridge to recovery

Doctors often refer to ECMO as a “bridge” therapy because it helps a patient move through a crisis. It provides support until the patient is strong enough for the next stage of treatment, which could be:   

  • Healing at the hospital
  • Recovery at home
  • Implanting mechanical heart support devices  
  • A heart transplant

Teamwork for optimal care

The ECMO team at Allegheny General Hospital (AGH) is led by Robert Moraca, MD. All ECMO patients receive 24/7 medical attention from a team of trained, experienced heart, lung, and critical care specialists. During 10 years of improving ECMO therapy, we are now able to use ECMO at a patient's bedside, where it is quicker and safer.

What are ECMO patients experiencing?

Patients on ECMO:

  • Are sedated ­— they cannot talk or move.
  • Are not in pain.
  • Receive liquid nutrition through a tube.
  • Recover at their own pace.

If you have a loved one on ECMO, check with the nurse to make sure it is safe to touch and talk to them. Your loved one will be removed from ECMO as soon as it is safe to do so.

Other questions from families

What is cardiogenic shock?

Cardiogenic shock means your heart is suddenly weak. It is unable to pump enough blood to get oxygen to the tissues, brain, and organs.

Cardiogenic shock can occur as a result of:

  • A massive heart attack
  • Heart surgery
  • Cardiomyopathy (a disease that makes it harder for the heart muscle to pump blood)
  • Chronic heart failure

When a patient is in shock, time is of the essence. At AHN, a cardiogenic shock team of specialists acts quickly. Together they:

  • Decide on the right course of care for the best chance of survival
  • Use proven decision-making pathways 
  • Make a rapid diagnosis and start therapy right away

This process has made huge improvements in helping more patients survive cardiogenic shock.

Contact us

Call (412) DOCTORS (412.362.8677) or request an appointment to learn more about AHN cardiovascular services.