Rare life support system pioneered by U of M doctor helps COVID-19 patients

Posted at 7:20 PM, Apr 21, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-22 11:47:20-04

(WXYZ) — There’s an extraordinary treatment that some COVID-19 patients are now receiving. It’s risky, but it could help save some lives as the virus continues to attack southeast Michigan.

When an Oakland County woman was told her mom would be transferred out of Beaumont Wayne as they closed down their COVID-only facility, a friend told her to get her mom on something called ECMO.

“She needs to go to U of M for ECMO, so I called a patient advocate,” she said. “I just made it clear my mom needed to evaluated for that.”

Before Michigan Medicine’s survival flight came for her mother last Tuesday, the daughter had been told by doctors that her mom had a 90% chance of losing her battle with coronavirus. Now that she’s at the University of Michigan, she says her mom’s condition has improved and the woman who’s in her 50s is now stable.

The daughter asked that we not identify the family because of patient privacy concerns, but she did want others to know about ECMO.

“ECMO stands for extracorporeal membrane oxygenation… It’s a pump and gas exchange device that allows us to circulate a patients blood outside of the body,” said Dr. Jonathan Haft, director of Michigan Medicine’s ECMO program.

ECMO was invented by U of M’s Dr. Robert Bartlett back in 1974, and it’s been saving lives ever since.

“It supports the vital functions of a patient’s heart and lungs while those organs are in a state of recovery,” said Dr. Haft. “ECMO is really used in the most extreme cases of respiratory failure like what we see with COVID-19.”

Right now there are 8 coronavirus patients on ECMO at U of M. ECMO comes with risk, so not everyone is a good candidate.

“We only have a finite capacity to provide ECMO support,” said Dr. Haft. “There’s no question the technology is important, but it really is delivered by people. So it really requires the expertise of skilled critical care physicians, very skilled critical care nurses, respiratory therapists, our ECMO specialists that have nursing and respiratory therapy backgrounds, as well as the ICU technicians. It really is a team effort, and our team has been working around the clock to try to deliver care for as many patients as we possibly can.”

Right now an international ECMO registry that’s based in Ann Arbor shows that 486 COVID19 patients across the world have tried the treatment. Right now there’s a 39% survival rate, but experts expect that to increase as more data is reported.

“ECMO outcomes are likely to be as good as when ECMO was applied for other causes of respiratory failure, like the H1N1 experience,” said Dr. Haft.

Dr. Haft says ECMO had around a 60% survival rate for H1N1 patients.

While U of M has been the flagship program for ECMO globally, there are other hospitals in the area that have ECMO including Beaumont Health and Henry Ford Health System.

“We’ve been communicating on a weekly basis about some of the difficult challenges that we’ve had: who are the patients that are most indicated, what are the some of the scarce resources that programs are dealing with, management techniques, and of course transferring patients when one center has reached its, reached its capacity,” said Dr. Haft.

Experts say if you’re looking to get someone on this life support system you need to talk to that patient’s doctor right away. ECMO has to be a referral between physicians, and the patient must meet very specific health criteria.

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