ECMO is used in Intensive Care when the lungs and/or heart are very sick and unable to perform their usual function in providing oxygen and blood to all the other important organs in the body.
How Does It Work?
Extracorporeal means ‘outside the body’. The blood is pumped from the patient through the oxygenator and back to the patient via large tubes. The blood from the patient is dark in colour (due to high carbon dioxide levels and low oxygen levels). The oxygenator adds oxygen to the blood and helps in lowering the carbon dioxide levels. The blood returning to the patient is brighter in colour because of the improved oxygen level. The ventilator settings will be adjusted with the aim of resting the lungs, allowing time for their recovery during the ECMO support.
During ECMO the blood will be thinned by drugs called anticoagulants to prevent it clotting. With the extra tubes to pump blood in and out of the body, careful monitoring for infection and bleeding will take place.
Caring for someone on ECMO requires the involvement of a large number of people from many different departments in the hospital, with everyone playing an important part. Apart from the Intensive Care medical and nursing specialists, the cardiothoracic surgeon and perfusionist will be involved in the patient’s care during ECMO.
How Long Will It Be Used For?
ECMO can be used for a period of several hours to several days. In extreme cases ECMO may be used for several weeks. As the lungs recover, the ECMO machine will be weaned and removed.
Are There Any Complications?
All Intensive Care interventions and procedures carry a degree of potential risk even when performed by skilled and experienced staff. Please discuss these issues with the medical and nursing staff who are caring for the patient.
Of course, if you have any questions or concerns, please discuss them with the ICU nurses and doctors.
To print this page use the Print Icon located top RHS of page.
The information contained on this page is general in nature and therefore cannot reflect individual patient variation. In addition, this information reflects Australian Intensive Care practice, which may differ from that in other countries. It is meant as a back up to specific information which will be discussed with you by the Doctors and Nurses caring for your loved oner. ICCMU attests to the accuracy of the information contained here BUT takes no responsibility for how it may apply to an individual patient. Please refer to the full disclaimer.
Extracorporeal Membranous Oxygenation Version 1.2
First published June 2004
Reviewed November 2011
Reviewer Kay Johnson CNS ICCMU