Covid-19 / Medicine

ECMO and the Treatment of Severe Covid-19

A glimpse into the procedure saving dozens of patients with severe Covid-19

Jesse Smith
Jun 11, 2020 · 6 min read
Image for post
Image for post
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

ECMO Explained

ECMO follows the principle of bypass by relieving the lungs of the duty of gas exchange. Following similar principles as kidney dialysis, blood is pulled from the veinous circulation — where oxygen concentrations are lowest — and sent through a pump system that shuttles blood into an oxygenator that oxygenates the blood while removing CO2 waste. Once blood is fully oxygenated, it is sent through a heat exchanger that brings it back to body temperature and returned to the body’s circulation. This newly oxygenated blood is then delivered to tissues by the heart.

ECMO Versus Mechanical Ventilators

Mechanical ventilators have received a lot of attention since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. These machines, which artificially breath for critically ill patients, are often the last resort for those Covid-19 patients in severe respiratory distress. Placing a patient on a ventilator is considered to a serious and often ominous sign that they are teetering on the edge of survival. Ventilators and ECMO serve the same end function — to maintain the delivery of oxygen-rich blood to tissues — but do so in different ways.

The Downside of ECMO

For all of its value, ECMO comes with its own risks. If nothing else, the procedure is invasive, requiring the placement of tubes into large vessels in the neck or leg. This carries risks of infection at the incision site that may enter the bloodstream. Infections at the site of IV or central lines in the hospital is a common occurrence. There is also an increased risk of blood clotting as a result of the procedure, which often requires patients be put on a blood thinner while undergoing ECMO. As we have seen from various reports, Covid-19 patients are already at an increased risk of blood clots, making this precaution even more important when deciding to use ECMO for severe Covid-19 cases.

BeingWell

Make informed choices about your Health

Sign up for Housecalls

By BeingWell

Get the latest opinions and breaking medical news from Healthcare Providers delivered directly to your inbox. Take a look

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our Privacy Policy for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

Jesse Smith

Written by

Medical student, molecular biologist and educator. I write about science and medicine.

BeingWell

BeingWell

A Medika Life Publication for the Medical Community

Jesse Smith

Written by

Medical student, molecular biologist and educator. I write about science and medicine.

BeingWell

BeingWell

A Medika Life Publication for the Medical Community

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app