The ECMO device is connected to a patient through plastic tubes (cannula), which are placed in large veins and arteries in the legs, neck or chest.
It replaces the function of the patient’s lungs by drawing blood from the body to a pump, which then pushes the blood through an artificial lung (oxygenator). The oxygenator adds oxygen to the blood and removes carbon dioxide.
The ECMO machine then acts like the heart, sending blood back to the patient.
Risks of ECMO
There are potential complications that are associated with being on ECMO:
Blood Clots: Blood can clot within the ECMO machine, the tubes, and in the patient – resulting in a need to change out the circuit, momentarily causing a loss of support. Loss of blood flow can develop in the arms or legs, requiring procedures to improve blood flow, or in rare cases, result in the need for amputation.
Bleeding: To prevent clots, patients will receive blood thinners increasing the risk of bleeding at incision and insertion sites, in other wounds, and in other organs, such as the brain. The care team monitors effects of medications on the patient to ensure that there is a balance between giving enough medication to prevent blood clots while not increasing the risk of bleeding. However, there is no way to completely eliminate this risk.
Infection: Patients on ECMO are also at high risk of developing an infection or pneumonia.
Weakness: Patients on ECMO long term can become very weak and require longer, aggressive physical therapy.
Mechanical Problems: As the ECMO circuit is a machine, mechanical problems can arise. The ECMO Specialist and Perfusion Team are available 24/7 to help monitor and assist.