Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO)

Life support for highest-level heart and lung healing

What is ECMO?

Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) is a treatment used when someone's heart or lungs are failing. This advanced life support system acts as a temporary replacement for your heart and/or lungs when they can't get enough oxygen to your tissues. 

ECMO doesn’t treat or cure a disease, but rather buys critical time for your heart and lungs to rest and heal. 

The process involves pumping blood from the body into the ECMO machine, which oxygenates the blood and then pumps it back into the body. The procedure requires a team of specialists, and it can be lifesaving for people with severe heart and lung conditions. 

Who is a candidate for ECMO?

Doctors typically recommend ECMO treatment for critically ill people. It's used for a variety of conditions including severe heart attacks, lung failure, hypothermia and sepsis. To be a candidate for ECMO, you must:

  • have severe heart or lung failure that isn’t responding to other treatments
  • be otherwise healthy and have a good chance of recovery

The decision to use ECMO is a complex one that’s made by a team of doctors. They will consider your individual circumstances and weigh the risks and benefits of ECMO before making a decision.

What to expect

A multidisciplinary team of specialists will manage your ECMO care in the intensive care unit. Because ECMO provides a very high level of life support, we typically treat just three to four people at a time.

The ECMO machine pumps your blood from a vein and passes it through an oxygenator, which adds oxygen and removes carbon dioxide. The oxygenated blood will then be pumped back into an artery. This process will give your heart and lungs a chance to rest and heal.

As your heart and lungs recover, our care team gradually tapers the ECMO treatment. In the intensive care unit, our team of specialists will closely watch over you as your heart and lung activity stabilize.

During recovery, you may experience some pain or discomfort at the sites where the ECMO cannulas were inserted. You may also feel tired or weak for some time.

Benefits of ECMO

ECMO is a groundbreaking life support procedure that can mean the difference between life and death when someone's heart or lungs are failing. Undergoing this procedure comes with many benefits, including:

  • Improved survival rates: ECMO can significantly increase the chances of survival in cases of severe heart or lung failure. By providing temporary support for these organs, we're allowing the body time to heal and recover.
  • Reduced risk of complications: ECMO can help prevent serious complications that can arise from heart or lung failure, such as organ damage, sepsis and death.
  • Return to normalcy: People who recover from ECMO often experience a significant improvement in their quality of life. They may be able to resume their usual activities, including work, school and social events. 
York Hospital Recruitment Stills_HV209577

ECMO pioneers

We've used ECMO as many as three times on the same person to achieve full recovery. During the COVID-19 pandemic, our use of ECMO increased 10-fold.

Specialized attention

Every member of our team is dedicated to ECMO care and has specialized training in ECMO procedures. On average, people on ECMO require two to three nurses at a time and many more specialists besides. You're literally surrounded by a robust team of top-tier experts in delivering this complex treatment.

Gold-standard excellence

Our ECMO program is accredited by the Extracorporeal Life Support Organization (ELSO), the gold standard in ECMO care. WellSpan York Hospital is the only hospital in South-Central Pennsylvania — and one of just a handful in the state — to receive ELSO's distinguished Gold Level Center of Excellence Award in Life Support.

Convenient high-level care

Few hospitals across Pennsylvania — or the country — offer this complex treatment. We're the go-to for critically ill people in cardiac or respiratory distress, keeping you and your loved ones closer to home with unbeatable care.