Q I was shocked when my neigh­bour got flu and needed ECMO. What is it ex­actly?

Woman's Weekly (UK) - - Dr Melanie -

AEx­tra­cor­po­real mem­brane oxy­gena­tion (ECMO) is a very high-tech treat­ment for acute re­s­pi­ra­tory fail­ure, when the lungs can’t trans­fer enough oxy­gen into the blood for the body’s needs. The per­son be­comes blue and breath­less, car­bon diox­ide builds up, their blood be­comes in­creas­ingly acidic, and wide­spread tis­sue/or­gan dam­age may be fa­tal.

Re­s­pi­ra­tory fail­ure can be acute or grad­ual, and can oc­cur in sev­eral lung dis­eases, in­clud­ing flure­lated pneu­mo­nia, asthma and chronic ob­struc­tive pul­monary dis­ease (COPD), as well as heart dis­ease and con­di­tions that weaken or re­strict breath­ing mus­cles, such as mo­tor neu­rone dis­ease (MND) or obe­sity.

Acute re­s­pi­ra­tory fail­ure is treated with oxy­gen through a face mask or a tube into the lungs while the un­der­ly­ing cause is treated, un­til the per­son im­proves. But if these don’t work, some­one who nor­mally has good lung func­tion may be of­fered a trans­fer to one of the UK’s few ECMO spe­cial­ist cen­tres.

ECMO pumps their blood into a ma­chine that adds oxy­gen and re­moves car­bon diox­ide, then re­turns it to their body un­til their lungs can take over again. It isn’t al­ways suc­cess­ful, but can be life-sav­ing.

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