Offering Specialized Life Support
One morning a young mother walked into a local hospital not feeling well with what she assumed was just the flu. By noon she was on maximum ventilator support, and the doctors at that hospital couldn’t do anything else for her. They called National Jewish Health | Saint Joseph Hospital to see if she qualified for their Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) program.
ECMO is a specialized bypass machine that takes over for the heart or lungs when they aren’t stable enough to function on their own. It can give patients in respiratory failure or heart failure the time they need to wait for a transplant or begin to recover.
When Every Second Counts
“Time is life for these patients,” said Scott Cizek, director of the Respiratory Service Line at Saint Joseph Hospital. “This is an advanced therapy we can give our sickest patients who have tried everything else. These patients probably wouldn’t make it without this.”
The mother was placed on ECMO and spent a week stabilizing. “You go from her walking and talking to ‘she might die if we don’t do this,’” said Ken Lyn-Kew, MD, Medical Director of the ECMO Program for National Jewish Health and Saint Joseph Hospital. “It was a rocky first week, but she was able to recover fully, and now these kids have their mom.” She later came back to thank the team that saved her life.
National Jewish Health | Saint Joseph Hospital receives some of the most advanced respiratory failure cases in the nation and has one of the busiest heart programs in the city. When the pieces came together to create a formal ECMO program, the doctors jumped at the chance. The program officially launched in December 2018.
“From the beginning, we felt that as an institution we needed this program,” said Dr. Lyn-Kew. “It didn’t take a genius to see the potential of this hospital -- with world-class nurses, world-class surgeons and the best pulmonology group in the world. We saw the potential to provide levels of support that we hadn’t necessarily been able to provide in the past.”
It’s not that ECMO itself is new to the hospital. They were able to use the technique to help patients without the formal program; however, the amount of effort that it takes to support these high-risk patients is a lot for a hospital without a specific team devoted to it. With limited staff who had the required training to run the machines, it became a burden on the cardiac surgical team.
“When we pull our surgeons out of the operating rooms, they aren’t able to do what they do best, which is operate on our patients,” said Dr. Lyn-Kew. “Having a formal ECMO program allows us to train respiratory nurses and therapists how to manage the ECMO circuit and any complications that come up.”
The program now has 22 dedicated ECMO specialists and has already received patients from all seven of the SCL Health hospitals in its first six months. “It’s taken a couple years of hard work and heavy lifting by dedicated people, but we are really excited about this program,” said Cizeck.