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What is ECMO, and When is it Used?

In the early 1960s, ECMO research began in adults and was soon used for newborns suffering from breathing problems. It is now a life-saving measure used by cardiovascular perfusionists, respiratory therapists, and registered nurses around the world. ECMO is now one of the top respiratory supports for patients suffering from heart and lung issues. 

ECMO uses a life support machine that essentially replaces the function of the heart and lungs for a patient. ECMO is used during life-threatening conditions such as lung damage from infection or shock after a heart attack. A patient can be on the support of an ECMO machine for anywhere from days to weeks. 

As a cardiovascular perfusionist, one of the main jobs is to operate the heart-lung machine during cardiac surgery. At Vivacity Perfusion, our team of skilled perfusionists offers the most advanced technologies available and the best ECMO health care that patients deserve. 

Whether you are a perfusionist, medical professional, or patient, knowing what ECMO is and when it is used is beneficial for everyone. Continue reading to learn more about this life-saving support system.

How Does ECMO Work?

According to the Medical College of Wisconsin, “Originally developed in the 1960s to support newborns and infants with respiratory distress syndrome and cardiac abnormalities, ECMO has only been widely adapted for usage in adults over the last five years.” ECMO machines work by inserting a tube into a large vein or artery through the patient’s neck or chest of the patient in which it is supporting. The oxygenator will add oxygen into the patient’s blood and remove carbon dioxide. ECMO is especially beneficial for patients whose heart or lungs may not be working correctly as the ECMO machine will, in turn, work as the patient’s heart and lungs for them.

A few other reasons that ECMO may be used are to provide help to people whose: 

  •  Lungs cannot provide enough oxygen to the body even when given extra oxygen 
  • Lungs cannot get rid of carbon dioxide even with help from a mechanical ventilator 
  • The heart cannot pump enough blood to the body. ECMO may also be used to support people with heart or lung disease that cannot be cured while they wait for an organ transplant.

When is ECMO Used?

There are two different types of ECMO that may be used. The first is VA which is connected to both a vein and an artery and is used when there are problems with both the heart and lungs. USCF is now using a portable ECMO device that can be carried by one person and transported in an ambulance, making it more mobile and can provide ECMO in emergency cases. 

ECMO is also used in the following situations: 

  • For patients recovering from heart and lung failure
  • For support during high-risk procedures in the cardiac catheterization lab 
  • As a bridge for patients awaiting a lung transplant, the ECMO helps keep tissues well organized, making the patient a better candidate for a transplant.

Final Thoughts

ECMO is a life-saving machine that has saved countless lives and continues to do so. We hope this information was beneficial and provided you with more insight into ECMO and how cardiac perfusionists use ECMO in their day-to-day careers.  If you are a medical professional looking for more information regarding our ECMO program or a board-certified perfusionist looking to join our team feel free to contact us at [email protected] for more information.


We provide quality staffing, straightforward pricing and coverage you can count on when you need it most. Our expert perfusionists and ECMO specialists are highly trained, certified and flow seamlessly with your team to ensure the best outcomes for your patients. Founded by a licensed perfusionist who imagined a better way of doing business, Vivacity aims to build relationships, cut through red tape, and guarantee that you will never find yourself without quality coverage again.

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