A pump (an artificial heart) and an artificial lung work together to oxygenate the blood without taxing the lungs. A surgeon will attach catheters, or tubes, to your baby through the large blood vessels in the groin or, more commonly, the neck. The machine will take blood that is not oxygenated from the right side of the heart and pump it through the artificial lung, which oxygenates it and removes carbon dioxide. The blood will be warmed before it is returned to your baby. At the same time, your baby will be on ventilator support.
At the beginning, the machine will do most of the work for the baby’s heart and lungs, letting them rest and recover their ability to function independently. Increasing blood levels of oxygen signal that the lungs are healing, and over time the ECMO machine will do less and less of the work of your baby’s organs.
It’s a delicate procedure with considerable risks, and the care that is required is complex. Therefore, after the surgery that connects the tubes, a team of ECMO specialists and nurses trained in ECMO will take over, staying at your baby’s bedside 24 hours a day to monitor and maintain the pump that runs the machine and make adjustments as needed. The ECMO-trained direct care nurses will spend their entire shift one- on- one with your baby.
After ECMO, your baby will need to stay on a ventilator for a little while in order to get enough oxygen and will be weaned over time. Recovery is gradual and may take weeks or months.