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Learning about ECMO

Diagram of blood containing carbon dioxide leaving body, passing through ECMO machine, and returning to body with oxygen.

What is it?

Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) is a type of life support. It's used for people with very serious lung or heart problems. ECMO uses a machine that takes carbon dioxide out of the blood and puts oxygen back into the blood. It does what the lungs and heart normally do on their own.

Why is it done?

ECMO is used in serious cases, when a person's heart or lungs aren't working like they should. It doesn't cure these problems. But it can provide more time until a transplant or other life-saving procedures can happen. ECMO is only used when there are no other options. And it doesn't always work.

How is it done?

The ECMO machine is connected to your body with two tubes. They are placed in large blood vessels. Where the tubes are connected depends on why you are having ECMO.

One tube takes your blood into the machine. The machine pumps your blood through a special filter that removes carbon dioxide. Then the machine puts oxygen into your blood and returns it to your body through the second tube.

Because people who need ECMO are very ill, it is done in the intensive care unit (ICU). There is lots of equipment in the ICU to help monitor and treat patients. You can expect to see tubes, wires, and machines everywhere. The staff can help you understand what all of this equipment does.

The length of time you have ECMO could be a few days to a few weeks. It depends on what condition you have and how severe it is.

What are the risks?

ECMO can help you live longer, but it also has risks. They include infections, damage to organs or limbs, a stroke, and life-threatening bleeding or blood clots. Some of these problems can be treated. But others can cause lasting damage or even death.

Follow-up care is a key part of your 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 you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

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