How ECMO Can Save a Child’s Life

DomicoBy Dr. Michele Domico, medical director, CHOC Children’s ECMO service

Children who are hospitalized with critical cardiac or pulmonary disease and don’t respond to current medical treatments might be candidates for a life-saving device called extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO).

ECMO (also known as extracorporeal life support) is a heart and lung bypass machine that can be used to rest a failing heart or lungs, providing complete support for a few days, or even weeks, until the heart and lungs recover.

A physician from CHOC Children’s ECMO team can evaluate a child to see if he or she is a candidate for this specialized treatment. ECMO is not offered to every patient because it is a high-risk procedure with possible complications. However, ECMO has saved many children’s lives when all else failed.

CHOC was one of the first centers to use this life-saving device, to saving a newborn infant dying from lung disease in 1975. Since then, ECMO has become widely used for infants and children with certain life threatening lung or heart problems. CHOC remains today the only hospital in Orange County to provide this complex life-saving treatment.

ECMO is most often used for children born with congenital heart defects, post-surgical patients and children with severe pneumonia. In 2012, CHOC published a practice-changing study that suggested expanding the use of ECMO for patients with severe lung disease or pneumonia who were previously not considered ECMO candidates.

More broadly, the CHOC ECMO program has made great strides in recent years, with state-of-the art equipment, an increased number of patients, excellent outcomes and improved ECMO specialist training.

The platinum-level Extracorporeal Life Support Organization (ELSO) Award of Excellence in Life Support recognizes programs worldwide that distinguish themselves by having evidence-based processes, procedures and systems in place that promote excellence in ECLS. As a recipient of a platinum designation, CHOC is among the highest scoring institutions.

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