ECMO Machine Life Support 

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 an ECMO machine?

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.

ECMO vs. ventilator machine

A ventilator machine (also known as a respirator) is used to support or completely control a person’s breathing when they are unable to do so on their own. It can be used for short or long periods of time. In some cases, the lungs are not able to function well enough, despite maximal support from the ventilator. In these cases, ECMO can directly take over the function of the heart and lungs to allow them to heal.

Two types of ECMO

Veno-arterial (VA) ECMO

This gives heart and breathing support to patients until they are strong enough to fully recover or have another operation.

Veno-venous (VV) ECMO

This 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, or 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 Michael Collins, MD. All ECMO patients receive 24/7 medical attention from a team of trained, experienced heart, lung, and critical care specialists. Through 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’s safe to touch and talk to them. Your loved one will be removed from ECMO as soon as it is safe to do so.

How long will patients be on ECMO?

It’s important to note that each patient is unique and will require a different amount of time on ECMO. Keep in mind that ECMO can take many weeks before any signs of improvement are seen.

What happens after ECMO?

ECMO isn’t a treatment, but a tool to help support patients until they’re strong enough for treatment. After a patient is removed from ECMO, a weaning trial will begin to see how a patient does without support. Once patients are breathing on their own, the ventilator will be removed. 

Will patients need physical therapy?

Some patients may need physical therapy to help them regain their strength and mobility. Physical and occupational therapists will work together to help your loved one gain strength, reach, stretch, and walk.

When can patients go home?

It may take several days or weeks until they’re able to eat, breathe, and swallow effectively. Our team of specialists will ensure you have all the right resources to help you care for your loved one while they recover. 

What if ECMO doesn't help?

In some cases, patients may not get better with ECMO support. If this occurs, your doctors will walk you through your options and try to help ease the emotional burden of making end-of-life decisions. 

Contact us

Call (412) DOCTORS (412) 362-8677 to request an appointment to see an AHN cardiologist, or email questions to ECMO@ahn.org.