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Patient stories

'The reason I'm still alive': WellSpan's nationally recognized program 

Hundreds of South Central Pennsylvania residents are alive today due to a lifesaving treatment called extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) they received from a nationally recognized program at WellSpan York Hospital. 

WellSpan's highly trained cardiology teams employ ECMO when patients are suffering from severe failure of the heart or lungs. Like the cardiopulmonary bypass circuit used in operating rooms every day, ECMO replaces the natural function of the heart and/or lungs, allowing those organs to recover and buying valuable time for the diagnosis and treatment of underlying conditions.

During the pandemic, the use of ECMO skyrocketed, as care teams at WellSpan York Hospital worked to save people from the respiratory distress brought on by COVID-19. Before the pandemic, about 30 patients a year received ECMO at WellSpan York Hospital. During the pandemic, that number more than tripled to more than 100 patients treated in 2021. The hospital even took the lifesaving step of borrowing ECMO pumps from other health systems to treat critically ill patients, some who received ECMO for more than 100 days. 

Several ECMO patients recently gathered in York County with family members and guests to celebrate their recovery at a special dinner WellSpan hosted for ECMO patients.  

The group who received ECMO last year included a grandma of four, with one more on the way, who is grateful for every day. A dad of five whose 300 relatives celebrated his recovery at a homecoming party. A former York High School security guard who is being evaluated for a heart transplant. 

"I absolutely would not be here without ECMO," says Julie Brown, 52, of Hanover, the grandma of four who received ECMO during a 268-day hospital stay, after she came down with COVID-19. "I am thankful for life. I can go. I'm independent. I drive. Everything is a moment to me now. Appreciating each day is a priority." 

"This technology helped us to save many lives during the critical days of the pandemic," said Dr. Omair Chaudhary, a WellSpan pulmonologist. "Being on ECMO offered our COVID-19 patients a better chance of survival because it allowed their lungs to heal." 

Teng Yang, 39, of Denver, is the father of five. He was on and off ECMO four times when he was hospitalized for COVID-19, spending about four months on the treatment. Most of that time he does not remember. In all, he spent 10 months in the hospital. 

"ECMO gave me my last shot at life," he says. "Three times they were saying that I would not come back. ECMO gave me the last chance, that fourth time, to recover and come home. We recently had a homecoming for me, with family coming from six states. That big party was a celebration of the big miracle that happened. ECMO allowed that big miracle to happen." 

Hospitals that offer ECMO must have a cardiac surgery program as well as specialized practitioners and technology. All these pieces are in place at WellSpan York Hospital, which has been offering ECMO since 2012. 

Many of the patients recently treated with ECMO had COVID-19, but not all of them. The treatment also is used for patients like Kelvin Harrison, 40. Kelvin has cardiomyopathy, a condition that thickens his heart muscle. He received ECMO while waiting to be placed on a portable mechanical heart pump. ECMO allowed his heart to recover enough to be placed on the pump, which may be his bridge to a heart transplant. All were critical steps that allowed him to return home to his family. 

"If I didn't have ECMO, 100 percent I would not have made it," Kelvin says. "Trust me, ECMO works wonders. That's all my wife talked about when I came to. Besides her support, and the nurses and doctors, ECMO is definitely the reason I'm still alive." 

WellSpan Health is certified as a Gold ECMO Center by the International Extracorporeal Life Support Organization (ELSO). WellSpan is one of only six Gold ECMO Centers in Pennsylvania and one of about only 100 in the entire country. ELSO recognizes centers that demonstrate exceptional commitment to evidence-based processes, quality measures, staff training, continuing education, patient satisfaction, and ongoing care.