How Does ECMO Work?

Normally when your child breathes, the lungs provide oxygen to the blood and carbon dioxide is removed. The heart is the pump which delivers well-oxygenated blood to your child’s entire body. ECMO works as an "artificial heart and lung" by delivering oxygen to your child when the lungs are unable to do so and moving blood throughout the body when the heart is unable to do so. The ECMO device adds oxygen to and removes carbon dioxide from your child's blood outside the body, and returns the blood back to your child — effectively doing the work of the lungs and/or heart when they are too impaired to do so. By taking the workload off the lungs and heart, ECMO lets these organs heal.

A surgeon will place one or more plastic tubes through large blood vessels in your child's neck, leg, or chest. Your child will receive pain medication and sedation, as well as other medications to ensure his or her comfort. Depending on your child's condition and needs, we will use one of two ECMO approaches:

  • Venovenous (VV) ECMO, which we use when the heart is working well but the lungs need time to rest and heal.
  • Venoarterial (VA) ECMO, which we use when the heart and/or the lungs need support as well as time to rest and heal.
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