Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO)

Since 1979, the ECMO program at the Heart Institute at Children's Hospital has helped kids with complex heart and lung problems.

What Is ECMO?

ECMO is short for extracorporeal membrane oxygenation and is a form of life support.

When the heart and lungs are too weak to give the body oxygen, ECMO:

  • Moves your child's blood to an artificial lung.
  • Adds oxygen to the blood.
  • Returns the oxygen-rich blood back into your child's body.

The ECMO machine lets the heart and lungs rest and heal. Children can be on ECMO for a few days or weeks.

Who ECMO Can Help

ECMO treatment and support helps:

  • Infants, children, and young adults with many kinds of lung and breathing problems.
  • Kids who need life support during resuscitation from cardiac arrest.
  • Infants and children in acute decompensated heart failure from viral myocarditis or cardiomyopathy who are waiting for a transplant.
  • Infants with respiratory distress due to a congenital diaphragmatic hernia.

ECMO Transport and Other Services

In 2008, Children’s became one of a few pediatric hospitals across the country to offer ECMO transport for kids with failing hearts.

Some children we transport need a heart transplant or longer term heart support with a ventricular assist device. We have both at Children’s.

Subject to the weather, the mode of transport we use for children on ECMO is either:

  • Helicopter
  • Fixed-wing plane
  • Ambulance

It takes the team about 2½ hours to arrive at the bedside and get your child into the helicopter or ambulance. The entire transport time — from leaving the hospital to returning to Children's — takes about 12½ hours.

After referral and transport, our critical care and surgical staff place your child on ECMO and jointly manage care.

A large group of specially trained ECMO technicians is ready to support constant bedside perfusion management. And post-ECMO follow-up is also part of the transport service.

As soon as your child is healthy enough after ECMO support, he or she will return to your referring doctor for care.

ECMO Program Referral Requirements

Referrals to the ECMO program at Children’s Hospital often come from our critical care doctors or one of the hospital’s ICUs.

We can provide rapid medical transport to the hospital.

To refer a child for:

  • ECMO support for lung or heart failure, doctors can call 412-692-5540.
  • Rapid transport, doctors can call the ECMO transport team — 24 hours a day, 7 days a week — at 1-877-PEDS-HRT (733-7478).

The referral base for ECMO extends beyond western Pa. to the:

  • New England states
  • Midwest
  • Upper southern states

To learn more about the ECMO program at Children's Hospital, call Perfusion Services at 412-692-5218.

ECMO Program Fast Facts

  • The Heart Institute at Children's has the space and equipment to support up to four ECMO cases at the same time.
  • We handle about 45 ECMO cases each year.
  • We received the “Excellence in Life Support Award” in 2009 from the Extracorporeal Life Support Organization.

Medical direction of ECMO services is a joint effort among pediatric: