ECMO (Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation)

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When your heart or lungs struggle doing their jobs, sometimes traditional treatments can’t help support your body. In these cases, a special life-support machine, called extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), can provide you with life-sustaining oxygen and deliver it around your body.

In addition to our designation as a Level 1 trauma center, UVA’s adult ECMO team is the only one in Virginia named a Center of Excellence with gold status from the Extracorporeal Life Support Organization.

What is ECMO? How Does it Work?

The ECMO machine temporarily replaces the work of your heart and lungs. Although ECMO can’t actually treat or cure the underlying causes of your heart or lung issues, ECMO can support your body while your healthcare team works to manage and treat your condition.

How it Works

  1. We connect the machine to your blood system by surgically placing tubes in a large artery and/or vein in your chest, leg or neck.
  2. A pump is used to move the blood from your body and through the ECMO system.
  3. Your blood flows through the system’s artificial lung, which removes carbon dioxide and adds oxygen.
  4. The pump then returns your blood to your body.

If you need ECMO, you’ll be staying in our thoracic cardiovascular intensive care unit (ICU), with the machine at your bedside.

ECMO Therapy: Pumping for the Heart & Lungs

ECMO is a heart-lung machine for patients with severe heart or respiratory failure. This allows the body to maintain and recover. Nick Teman, MD, explains what to expect if you or a loved one needs ECMO as a treatment option at UVA. View ECMO transcript.

Why Would I Need ECMO?

You may need to use an ECMO machine if your:

  • Lungs can’t adequately transfer oxygen to your blood
  • Lungs can’t properly remove carbon dioxide from your blood
  • Heart can’t pump enough blood around your body

Conditions that may cause you to need ECMO include:

  • Heart:
    • Myocardial infarction
    • Pulmonary embolism
    • Myocarditis
    • Cardiogenic shock
    • Heart failure
  • Lung:
    • Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)
    • Pneumonia
    • Other reversible lung diseases

ECMO can also support patients:

  • Who need a left ventricular assist device (LVAD)
  • Who are waiting for a heart or lung transplant
  • Leading up to or after surgery
  • Who have suffered trauma or severe sepsis

The ECMO Care Team

The multidisciplinary ECMO team includes:

  • Surgeon
  • Intensive Care Unit specialists and nurses
  • ECMO specialist
  • Physical and occupational therapist
  • Respiratory therapist

Refer a Patient

Contact us about transferring a patient needing ECMO to our ICU.