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Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO)

Clinical Heart and Vascular Center

UT Southwestern Medical Center’s experienced physicians offer extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) therapy to temporarily support patients with failing hearts and lungs. ECMO therapy is often used as a bridge to heart or lung transplantation.

Leading-Edge Support for Failing Hearts and Lungs

An ECMO machine is an external device used to temporarily support children and some adults with severe heart failure and advanced lung disease that cannot be treated with medications, oxygen, or a ventilator.

ECMO therapy is indicated only for patients whose underlying disease can be reversed within two weeks. There are two types:

  • Veno-arterial (VA): Supports both the heart and lungs
  • Veno-venous (VV): Supports only the lungs

Similar to a cardiopulmonary bypass machine, an ECMO machine is situated outside the body. The machine consists of a pump – which acts as an artificial heart, pushing blood through the machine and back into the body – and a membrane oxygenator, which serves as artificial lungs, clearing the blood of carbon dioxide and delivering oxygen to the blood. UT Southwestern offers advanced ECMO therapy as a way to temporarily support patients whose heart and lungs don't function at the necessary levels.

UT Southwestern is home to a dedicated Cardiac Rehabilitation Program. Cardiac rehabilitation is a critical component of recovery and can prevent future heart disease.

ECMO: What to Expect

ECMO Procedure Details

The surgeon places two tubes (cannula) into the side of the patient’s neck – one in the large vein that goes to the right side of the heart and the other in a large vein (VV) or artery (VA).

Dark red, insufficiently oxygenated blood drains into the first tube and then into the ECMO machine, which oxygenates the blood and returns it, now bright red, through the second tube.

The ECMO machine initially works at full capacity but slows down as patients respond appropriately. Patients also are placed on a ventilator.

Risks of ECMO

As with most medical treatments, ECMO therapy comes with risks. They include:

  • Possibility of increased risk of bleeding problems from heparin, a blood-thinning drug used to prevent clots from forming in the cannulas
  • Increased risk of infection
  • Risk of bleeding in the brain

Support Services

UT Southwestern’s cardiac rehabilitation specialists create customized plans that integrate proper nutrition, exercise, and, if necessary, nicotine cessation into patients’ lifestyles to improve their cardiovascular health.

Clinical Trials

As one of the nation’s top academic medical centers, UT Southwestern offers a number of clinical trials aimed at improving the outcomes of patients with cardiovascular disease.

Clinical trials often give patients access to leading-edge treatments that are not yet widely available. Eligible patients who choose to participate in one of UT Southwestern’s clinical trials might receive treatments years before they are available to the public.

Related Conditions and Treatments

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