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ECMO (Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation)

The UCI Health Cardiovascular Center team offers ECMO, short for extracorporeal membrane oxygenation device, to provide critical life support for patients suffering severe heart and/or lung failure.

ECMO is most often used for adults with advanced heart failure, which affects more than 6 million people in the United States every year.

As Orange County’s most advanced cardiovascular disease services program, we offer ECMO and other leading-edge devices, including LVAD, MitraClip, Watchman and TAVR.

For more information about ECMO, the Cardiovascular Center or our Cardiothoracic Surgery Services team, please call 714-456-6699.

What is ECMO?

The ECMO machine is a portable life-support system used for severe cases of heart and lung failure.

The ECMO procedure provides minimally invasive heart-lung bypass support outside of the body. The machine then removes carbon dioxide from the patient’s blood and adds oxygen. Basically, ECMO serves as your heart and lungs, allowing your own organs to rest.

Who is ECMO for?

ECMO is for patients suffering from severe, life-threatening illnesses that result in their heart or lungs failing to function properly.

What conditions is it used for?

ECMO is an option for patients who have advanced heart failure.

ECMO is also used for:

  • Patients waiting for heart, lung or other organ transplants
  • Patients in shock after a massive heart attack
  • Patients with severe heart and lung disease
  • Patients with severe lung damage from infection
  • Patients suffering from extreme trauma
  • Patients whose hearts cannot pump enough blood to the body
  • Patients whose lungs cannot provide enough oxygen, even when given extra oxygen
  • Patients whose lungs cannot expel carbon dioxide, even with help from a mechanical ventilator

How does ECMO work?

ECMO works like a temporary heart and lung machine. The ECMO machine is connected to a patient through plastic tubes called cannula. These cannulae are placed in large veins and arteries in the legs, neck or chest. One tube is inserted into the artery from the heart. Another tube is inserted in a vein.

Blood is then pumped from the patient’s body into an artificial lung (oxygenator) that removes carbon dioxide and adds oxygen. Essentially, the ECMO machine acts as the patient’s lungs.

The ECMO machine then sends the oxygenated blood back to the patient’s body from a pump that uses the same amount of force as the heart.

By allowing the heart and lungs to rest, ECMO supports and improves the outcomes of other treatments the patient needs.

What does the procedure feel like?

Patients who use ECMO are usually cared for in an intensive care unit (ICU). 

When a patient is first connected to an ECMO machine, they are sedated and do not feel the tubes going into their veins and arteries. The cannulae are not painful. However, patients may be given medications for comfort.

Patients are monitored closely by ECMO specialists, called perfusionists, who adjust settings as needed and ensure there are no complications.

How long is ECMO used?

Depending on a patient’s needs, the ECMO machine may be used several days or even weeks.

Patients in need of longer term assistance may benefit from the left ventricular assistive device (LVAD). The LVAD is a more permanent version of ECMO. Learn more about LVAD.

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