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Learning About ECMO for Children

What is ECMO?

Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) is used for children who have very serious lung or heart problems. ECMO is done using a special machine that is connected to the child. The machine puts oxygen into the child's blood and takes carbon dioxide out of the blood.

ECMO does what the lungs and heart normally do on their own. This gives a child's lungs and heart time to rest, develop, and heal.

As a child's lungs and heart get stronger, ECMO can be used less over time. Your child may need ECMO for a few days to a few weeks, depending on how the lungs or heart improves.

Seeing tubes and wires attached to your child can be scary. But these things help the doctor treat your child. The tubes supply oxygen, fluid, and medicines to your child. The wires are attached to machines that help the doctor keep track of your child's vital signs. These include temperature, blood pressure, breathing rate, and pulse rate.

It may be hard to be apart from your child, especially when you worry about your child's condition. Know that the hospital staff is well prepared to care for children with this condition. They will do everything they can to help. If you need it, ask for support from friends and family. You can also ask the hospital staff about counselling and support.

How is ECMO done?

The ECMO machine connects to your child with two tubings to make up a closed system. One tubing takes your child's blood to the machine. The machine pumps the blood through a special filter that removes carbon dioxide. After it filters the blood, the machine puts oxygen into the blood. It then returns the treated blood with high oxygen concentration to your child through the second tube. This treated blood will help to keep your child's major organs working.

What are the risks?

ECMO does have risks. But the risk to your child from serious lung or heart problems is greater than the risk of ECMO. Some children have problems from ECMO, such as bleeding, blood clotting, or infection. There are treatments for these problems.

Follow-up care is a key part of your child's treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) if your child is having problems. It's also a good idea to know your child's test results and keep a list of the medicines your child takes.

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