For the last ten years, WellSpan Health has been utilizing a piece of technology that can help patients whose heart or lungs are not functioning properly. It has been of particular use during the COVID-19 pandemic. And in 2020, it was used in a way it had never been used before at a WellSpan hospital.
“This was the first postpartum patient we have seen that needed to go on ECMO,” said Dmitriy Zubkus, M.D., pulmonologist with WellSpan Health. “Postpartum patients don’t normally have cardiac arrests. 99 out of 100 postpartum patients go home, they enjoy their lives, they do fine and fantastic. The key thing is to have this available in case something bad happens.”
That was the case for a new mom at WellSpan York Hospital in September. At 37 weeks pregnant, she went into labor. After welcoming her new baby to the world, it appeared both mom and baby were doing fine.
A few hours later, that mom went into cardiac arrest. She was quickly taken to the Intensive Care Unit , where she was put on ECMO.
Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) is used for patients suffering from severe failure of the heart or lungs. ECMO is a short-term, life-support system that replaces or supplements the natural function of the heart and/or lungs, allowing them to rest and potentially recover. ECMO provides valuable time to further assess and treat the underlying cause of the acute problem.
“ECMO works very well for patients whose heart isn’t working, or whose lungs aren’t working,” Zubkus explained. “We were able to get her on ECMO in about 15 minutes after we started, which is very good time. After we got her on ECMO, we no longer had to continue doing CPR. The ECMO circuit takes care of all of the heart’s functions.”
For patients who are put on ECMO, time is of the essence, since the heart and/or lungs are not functioning. At WellSpan York Hospital, Dr. Zubkus and his team were able to react quickly and use ECMO to help the new mother heal.
“The next day, she woke up. We took the breathing tube out. She was walking around the intensive care unit with the ECMO cannulas in,” said Zubkus. “Her heart recovered. Her lungs recovered. We took the ECMO circuit out within 72 hours, and eventually she went home completely intact. Which is an amazing story.”
After about two weeks, that patient was able to leave the hospital and go home with her newborn baby.
A life-saving tool at WellSpan
ECMO may be a life-saving measure for patients with severe injury to the heart or lungs when traditional treatments don’t work. Patients with severe congestive heart failure may also be candidates for ECMO as a bridge to more durable mechanical support, recovery or transplantation.
Throughout ECMO support, the patient is the center of a highly coordinated medical team effort and receives around-the-clock care.
For the last three years, WellSpan Health has been certified as a Gold ECMO Center by the International ELSO Organization. WellSpan is one of only three Gold ECMO Centers in Pennsylvania. It is recommended ECMO teams undergo 40 to 80 hours of training. At WellSpan, those teams undergo 250 hours of training.
“This has been revolutionary for both WellSpan and our patients,” said Dwayne Houpt, ECMO Specialist. “Before, it was only the major medical institutions and major universities that offered this. Now, we can offer it to the local community here in south central Pennsylvania. So instead of adding more time for travel, we can get them on ECMO fast and improve their recovery.”
For more information on the cardiovascular care services provided by WellSpan, visit WellSpan.org/Heart.