Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO)

The ECMO program at CHRISTUS Health has been serving critically ill patients since 1989 and has been internationally recognized as an Extracorporeal Life Support Organization (ELSO) designated “Center of Excellence.” It has remained the most active, comprehensive, and experienced neonatal, pediatric, and cardiac ECMO center in South-Central Texas for 30 years, providing ECMO treatment to more than 170 critically ill patients. 

ECMO is the highest form of support CHRISTUS Health provides and is one important reason why we have such great outcomes for critically ill patients.

Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) is available for critically ill patients with severe lung or heart problems, or certain birth anomalies.  Using a multidisciplinary approach, our team of specially trained intensive care physicians, nurses, and respiratory therapists work to provide the best and most complete care to our patients.

What is ECMO?

ECMO provides heart and lung life support for patients with life-threatening illness or injury. It allows the lungs and/or heart to rest and heal while doctors treat the underlying illness that is causing heart and/or lung failure. For example, sometimes patients have severe breathing problems that need more support than what a breathing machine (respirator or ventilator) can provide. ECMO serves to replace the body’s need to breathe with an artificial lung (oxygenator). ECMO can also support the heart when a patient has low blood pressures or when the heart is not working as well as it should. Many kinds of lung disease or heart problems may get better over time with the rest that ECMO provides. Patients often are on ECMO for several days to several weeks. The duration depends on your the patient's reason for needing ECMO and their response to the treatments they are provided. 

How does ECMO work?

ECMO is similar to cardiac bypass. The blood leaves the body through a plastic tube (cannula) and moves through the ECMO tubing, commonly referred to as the “ECMO circuit,” into a blood pump. The blood passes through an artificial lung (also called an oxygenator) which puts oxygen into the blood and removes the carbon dioxide. After passing though this lung, the blood will return to the body. The pump is adjusted based on the patient's needs.

Who needs ECMO?

At CHRISTUS Health, we see thousands of sick patients every year. Most of these patients do not require ECMO to support their heart and lungs. There are, however, a small number of patients (about 10-20 per year) who require ECMO to help them recover. While ECMO does not help all patients, it is sometimes the best and only option. Patients who need

ECMO usually have one or more of these problems:

  • Heart failure
  • Meconium Aspiration Syndrome
  • Sepsis
  • Respiratory Distress Syndrome
  • Persistent Pulmonary Hypertension
  • Pneumonia
  • Congenital Diaphragmatic Hernia
  • A life-threatening heart condition

Types of ECMO?

Venovenous (VV) ECMO: This type of ECMO does the work of the patient's lungs. Oxygen-poor blood is drained through a plastic tube (cannula) into a device that removes excess carbon dioxide and adds oxygen. The oxygen-rich blood is then returned to the body through another tube. The patient's heart continues to pump blood to the body.

Venoarterial (VA) ECMO: This type of ECMO does the work of the patient's heart and lungs. Oxygen-poor blood is drained through a plastic tube (cannula) into an artificial lung that removes excess carbon dioxide and adds oxygen. Then the artificial lung pumps the oxygen-rich blood into an artery in the patient's body. This type of ECMO can be used to completely support your child’s heart if it fails.

Both of these types of ECMO provide vital organs support allowing them time to heal.