Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation, or ECMO for short, is an advanced therapy that is sometimes used to do the work of the heart and lungs when a patient’s own organs are too sick or weak to work on their own. It is effectively a modified heart-lung bypass machine—a machine that takes over heart and lung function (meaning it adds oxygen to and removes carbon dioxide from a patient’s blood supply).
But unlike a heart-lung bypass machine, which is designed for short-term use (during heart surgery, for instance), ECMO machines provide long-term heart and lung support over a period of hours, days, or even weeks to give a patient’s heart and lungs time to heal and regain function.
ECMO can be used for patients of all ages, from infants to adults. It can help patients with a range of severe heart and lung conditions, from cardiac arrest to respiratory failure. But in most cases, ECMO therapy is used only when all other conventional treatments have failed to resolve the underlying heart or lung disorders.
“ECMO is really the most advanced supportive therapy that is available to critically ill patients suffering from acute or chronic cardiac and respiratory failure,” says Arnar Geirsson, MD, Yale Medicine’s section chief of cardiac surgery. “Not everyone is a candidate for ECMO, but it can be life-saving, if initiated in a safe and expeditious manner.”