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Support During ECMO

It can be stressful when your loved one is receiving mechanical circulatory support or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) treatment. ECMO is used after other treatments for the heart and lungs, including medications, extra oxygen, or a mechanical ventilator, have not been enough to help the body heal. ECMO is a heart–lung support device that takes over the work of those organs, so they can heal.

Tubing, monitors, and machines are part of the treatment, and your loved one might look different due to swelling related to the treatment. These physical changes usually go away after ECMO treatment is complete.

How the ECMO Procedure Works

A surgeon threads plastic tubes, called cannulas, through blood vessels in the patient’s neck, chest, or leg, connecting them to the heart. One tube brings blood to the ECMO machine, where it receives oxygen. The other tube returns blood to the body. Often another small tube goes from the mouth or nose to the stomach to provide nutrition to patients who are unable to eat solid food during ECMO care.

Throughout treatment, an intensive care unit nurse monitors the patient at all times. Some patients may be unconscious, because they have received a medication that makes them sleep. This reduces the amount of oxygen they need, which helps in the healing process. However, some patients may be able to participate in physical therapy while on ECMO support. Any procedures or tests the patient may need are often done at the bedside. If that is not possible, the ECMO team travels with the patient to ensure their safe care.

The amount of time that patients receive ECMO support depends on the extent of their illness. To ease your concerns about ECMO care, we encourage you to participate in daily rounds, where you can meet your loved one’s care team. The care team is made up of highly trained specialists, including doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, and perfusionists, who operate the ECMO machines. Feel free to ask questions and share with us any information you think might be important for your loved one’s care.

Supporting Patients and Families During ECMO

We encourage you to visit your loved one in accordance with our visitor guidelines. When patients are sleeping, you can still talk to them, play music, or simply sit and be a calming presence. We also offer integrative health programs that ease stress, and guidance from our spiritual care team. It is also important to remember to take care of your own needs, making sure you get the rest and proper meals you need to stay healthy and strong during this stressful time.

After our medical team transitions your loved one from the treatment, ongoing care is often required, including additional mechanical circulatory support devices or a ventilator to assist the heart and lungs as your loved one regains strength. The length of this process is unique to each person. We encourage you to talk to our medical team for more information.