ECMO Saves a Life

Jess Harris with cards

As a seasoned card player, Jess Harris knows a good hand when he sees one.

When it came to heart failure, however, the deck was stacked against him.

"My survival chances were less than 50 percent," he says. "Yet here I am!"

Getting from where he was with heart failure so severe he could only walk a few steps at a time, to where he is today on the road to recovery, wasn't easy. The retired tax consultant and emergency medicine technician needed special help in the form of a procedure called extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO).

First used in 1971 and often associated with treating newborn infants with respiratory failure, ECMO allows sick or injured hearts or lungs the opportunity to rest and get better.

In Harris's case, the experts with UI Heart and Vascular Center viewed ECMO as a last-ditch effort to give his heart a temporary boost so he could survive the surgical implantation of a cardiac stent.

Cardiologist John Chase, MD, who evaluated Harris and recommended him for ECMO, noted that the procedure is not a cure. "ECMO is generally used for acute, reversible cardiac or respiratory failure when the risk of death despite conventional treatment is high (50 to 100 percent)," he explains. "The results focus on survival."

ECMO is performed by draining venous blood from the large catheter placed in a vein to the ECMO circuit, removing carbon dioxide and adding oxygen through an artificial lung, and pumping the re-warmed blood back into the circulatory system via a vein (VV ECMO) or artery (VA ECMO).

What begins as poorly oxygenated dark red blood becomes well oxygenated bright red blood.

Supported by ECMO, Harris's heart recovered well enough that he could tolerate the all-important surgical implantation of a life-saving stent.

"I'm feeling pretty good right now," Harris says. "The people who took care of me were absolutely great!"