What is ECMO?

ECMO (Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation) is a method for temporarily supporting patients with severe heart and/or lung failure. The ECMO circuit essentially adds oxygen to the blood and can help the heart pump blood to the body. Basically, it is similar to a heart-lung bypass machine used during open heart surgery but can be used for a longer treatment period.  ECMO uses an artificial lung called a membrane. Blood is pumped through this lung by the machine where carbon dioxide is removed and oxygen is added. This enables the patient's doctors to use lower settings on the ventilator (breathing machine), hopefully allowing the patient's lungs to "rest" and heal. Since blood is circulated outside the body (extracorporeal) and loses heat, the oxygenated blood passes through a heat exchanger warming it prior to returning to the patient. The ECMO pump can provide cardiac support by taking over part of the heart's workload. In time, the reduced effort by the heart may improve its function (See Figure 1).