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If your heart and lungs suddenly fail, ECMO can help.

ECMO stands for extra corporeal membrane oxygenation and is essentially a heart-lung machine that does the work of both the heart and the lungs. There are two types of ECMO: VA, or venoarterial, which supports the heart and the lungs; and  VV, or venovenus, which is oxygenation support only for the lungs. ECMO is similar to the heart-lung machine used in open-heart surgery. Not many hospitals use life-saving ECMO therapy at the bedside; Piedmont is one of the few that does.

“The reason we would use ECMO is because someone’s heart and/or lungs are not able to do the functions that they normally do,” says Morris Brown, M.D. , surgeon at Piedmont Heart Institute. “So they need a mechanical device to do those functions for them.

ECMO saved Dallas resident Terry Harris, who developed gangrenous appendix and a systemic inflammatory response syndrome on a business trip to Atlanta. He was rushed to Piedmont Hospital’s Emergency Department. “I assessed Terry, and we clearly needed to do something right then,” says Dr. Morris. “I told his wife the night we put the ECMO in, I said, ‘We’re putting this in because basically he wouldn’t live another two hours if we don’t do this.’”

Terry, who was in a medically induced coma, was on the ECMO for 25 days. He stayed on venoarterial ECMO the majority of that time. The last five or six days, he was switched to venovenus ECMO to let his heart do the work but let the machine  continue to support his oxygenation.

A tracheostomy kept Terry more comfortable on the ventilator. “He still required mechanical ventilation even after he came off the venovenus ECMO,” says Dr. Morris. “Then we got him off of the ventilator,  and, ultimately, got the tracheostomy out.” After being at Piedmont for over two months, Terry is fully recovered and back in Dallas with his wife and baby girl. They are expecting another baby in July.

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