Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) is a temporary mechanical support system that handles the function of the heart and/or lungs in patients with a variety of cardiac and respiratory problems. ECMO uses a pump that attaches with tubes to large blood vessels in the neck or groin. It is most commonly used for patients recovering from heart surgery or suffering from cardiac shock, awaiting a heart or lung transplant or heart-assistance device, or battling respiratory conditions such as COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome). The system also has proven effective among those with respiratory failure associated with trauma, poisoning, post-surgical complications, and pregnancy. Risks from ECMO include bleeding, blood clots, infection, and other potential problems, though many adults and children who need ECMO likely would die without it.
UAB Medicine’s extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) program was started over 20 years ago and is the only one in Alabama. The program consistently receives the Gold Level Award for Excellence from the Extracorporeal Life Support Organization (ELSO). This award recognizes ECMO programs worldwide that distinguish themselves by establishing processes, procedures, and systems to promote excellence and exceptional care and achieve the highest levels of performance, innovation, satisfaction, and quality. Through its relationship with ELSO, UAB is part of a global alliance of ECMO centers.
UAB’s ECMO program supports 80-100 adult patients per year and another 40-50 pediatric patients at Children’s of Alabama, making it one of the busiest ECMO centers in the nation. It has the capacity to care for multiple patients in a dedicated section of the Cardiothoracic Intensive Care Unit, with 24/7 support from an ECMO specialist and access to pulmonologists, cardiologists, cardiovascular surgeons, nurses trained in ECMO, and other health care professionals. UAB serves as a regional referral center capable of providing technical services and consultations related to ECMO, and the program is involved in advanced research initiatives focused on therapies to support failing organ systems.
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