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