Old tech offers critically-ill COVID-19 patients new chances at life

Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, machines do the work of lungs to create highly oxygenated blood by removing and replacing blood back into the body. (Courtesy MedStar Washington Hospital Center)

A piece of medical equipment more typically used after open-heart surgeries is now helping save the lives of some COVID-19 patients.

“They will die without having ECMO, because all the other conventional therapies have failed,” said Gregory Kitchen, director of perfusion services with MedStar Heart & Vascular Institute at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, machines do the work of lungs to create highly oxygenated blood by removing and replacing blood back into the body.

“We exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen and that can help manage (the patients’) pH balance,” Kitchen said. “And they can really rest and recover, and start to heal from the injury that caused the breakdown in the gas exchange.”

Among the perfusionists who operate ECMO machines at Medstar’s Heart & Vascular Institute at MedStar Washington Hospital Center are (left to right) Greg Kitchen, Lisa McCune, Mina Motazedi, Anna Pomazunova and Lewis Hoover. Several other staff members are not pictured. (Courtesy MedStar Washington Hospital Center)

Kitchen said about 50% of COVID-19 patients survive ECMO and, of that group, 40 to 45% will go home and fully recover.

ECMO has become more popular over the past 10-15 years in hospitals that have open-heart surgery programs. It is used as a bridge to recovery for people who have a hard time coming off cardio pulmonary bypass in the operating room.

There are only about 4,000 people in the nation trained as perfusionists who manage ECMO and all the open-heart surgery that happens in the nation. The training involves getting a master’s degree in cardiovascular science.

“I think the perfusion profession as a whole has taken on a huge part of this therapy and making sure it’s been successful in a lot of institutions and organizations,” Kitchen said.

The 11 perfusionists at Medstar’s Heart & Vascular Institute at MedStar Washington Hospital Center have provided nearly 8,000 clinical bedside hours in April and May to critically-ill COVID-19 patients, while continuing to care for cardiac surgery patients.


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