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Doctors using ECMO to treat younger COVID-19 patients

Published: Oct. 22, 2020 at 5:37 AM CDT
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GREEN BAY, Wis. (WBAY) - COVID-19 can cause severe problems in the lungs, including pneumonia and respiratory distress.

Some patients need to be put on a ventilator. Others need additional treatment in the form of advanced life support.

HSHS St. Vincent Hospital in Green Bay says an ECMO machine can do the work of the lungs and heart, if needed.

Long plastic tubes are surgically inserted into a vein in either the neck or leg. The tubing will take the unoxygenated blood from the body and send it to the machine. The machine oxygenates the blood and removes carbon dioxide before sending it back to the body.

The ECMO gives the lungs a chance to rest and heal.

Broadway star Nick Cordero was placed on ECMO for a period of time after his COVID-19 diagnosis. He later passed away due to complications from COVID-19.

Recent data shows 35 percent of COVID-19 patients on ECMO survived.

Dr. Manar Alshahrouri is a critical care pulmonologist at HSHS St. Vincent Hospital and HSHS St. Mary’s Hospital. He encourages everyone to take steps to prevent COVID-19 from spreading.

“What’s really important, if you’ll allow me this, is to prevent this from happening to begin with. That is the big thing here. When you get to ECMO, that person, imminent death right there. This is your Hail Mary,” says Dr. Alshahrouri.

It’s important to note that patients on ECMO do not return to a normal life after survival. It’s taxing on the body and recovery can take time.

“If you break your arm, the physician, they’ll operate or not. They’ll put on a cast and tell you, well guess what you’re not going to use that arm for X number of weeks while that bone heals. With the lungs, that’s not an option. You gotta breathe. The ECMO would allow you to give the lungs a break if you will and give them a chance to heal without this constant use of them," says says Dr. Alshahrouri.

ECMO comes with risks. Those risks include blood clots, which require blood thinners. That will increase the risk of internal bleeding.

Doctors say the best candidates for ECMO are younger people without known underlying conditions.

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