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Published on January 28, 2022

Heart and Lung Support for COVID-19 Patients with Severe Illness

ECMO now available at Jefferson Abington Hospital, providing much-needed support for those in critical care.

Throughout the pandemic, we’ve learned the severe effects that COVID-19 can have on some of those who catch the virus—such as respiratory failure or even death. Thankfully, there are critical care life support options that can help patients’ lung and heart function, giving them more time to recover from severe illness.

One of these support options is extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), which temporarily takes over for the heart, lungs or both while a person heals. ECMO has proven useful for severe cases of COVID, but it’s not new to critical care. To learn more, we spoke with Dr. Nawar Al-Rawas, a cardiac anesthesiology intensivist at Jefferson Abington Hospital.

Q: How does ECMO work?

Developed in the 1970s, ECMO uses a machine to divert blood out of the body, oxygenate it and feed it back into the body. “For patients in critical care who need ECMO, they will have a catheter connected to their blood vessels to draw blood out. Once the blood enters the oxygenator, the machine takes carbon dioxide out and adds oxygen in,” says Dr. Al-Rawas. “In this way, it takes over for the lungs and heart to assist the patient’s respiratory and cardiac functions.”

Q: What is ECMO used for?

ECMO is an option for certain patients who have a lung infection, pulmonary dysfunction or any acute event in the heart or lungs. This could be someone suffering from a severe case of COVID, a heart attack, severe asthma or clotting in the heart or lungs.

“It’s important to know that ECMO is not a treatment option, but rather a life-saving therapy that gives patients time—time to recover with medicine, time to wait for more advanced treatment (like a transplant) or time for the body to heal itself,” says Dr. Al-Rawas. “ECMO acts as an artificial lung and/or heart to stabilize the patient, but it doesn’t treat the patient’s condition.”

In addition, ECMO is a temporary solution that shouldn’t be used for more than a few weeks. “The longer a patient is on ECMO, the more likely it is that they will have complications,” says Dr. Al-Rawas. “So if they’re not recovering, we will want to consider a transplant or another advanced treatment option.”

Q: What are the benefits of seeking respiratory care at Jefferson Health?

ECMO requires a comprehensive, multidisciplinary approach—one that the team at Jefferson Abington Hospital can offer. “Respiratory dysfunction can be a long journey,” says Dr. Al-Rawas. “But our team is here to support patients and their families along the way.” Patients at Jefferson Abington Hospital have access to the same quality of care offered at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, with the benefit of staying close to home.

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