Heart Institute

The Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) Program at Children's Hospital Colorado


What is Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO)?

ECMO is a technique used in the Intensive Care Units (ICUs) at Children's Hospital Colorado. It provides cardiac and respiratory support to patients whose heart and lungs are so severely diseased or damaged that they can no longer work on their own.

Who needs ECMO?

Within the ICU at Children's Colorado, we see thousands of sick children every year. Most of these kids do not require ECMO to support their heart and lungs. There are, however, a small number of children (about 20-40 patients per year) who require ECMO to help them get better and go home. While ECMO does not help all patients, it is sometimes the best and only option.

How does ECMO work?

ECMO uses a machine, commonly referred to as the "ECMO circuit," to circulate a portion of blood outside of the body to get oxygen. The blood in the ECMO circuit is then pumped back into the body in much the same way as the heart pumps blood. By using the ECMO circuit, doctors are able to help the child's heart and/or lungs recover.

How is the ECMO circuit connected to the body?

To connect the ECMO circuit to a child, a cardiothoracic or general surgeon specially trained in pediatrics and ECMO places a venous cannula (a thin tube) into a major vein. This cannula is most often placed in the neck, but can also be placed in the leg or even in the chest if the child has recently undergone open-heart surgery. The venous cannula (tube in the vein) is where some of the blood leaves the child's body to go through the ECMO circuit.

The surgeon also places an arterial cannula (tube in the artery) for the blood to be returned to the body. This arterial cannula is also often placed in the neck, but can be placed in the leg, chest or even another large vein depending on why ECMO is being used.

Why choose the ECMO Program at Children's Hospital Colorado?

The ECMO Program at Children's Colorado is comprised of a dedicated team of nearly 30 nurses and respiratory therapists called ECMO specialists. These specialists are trained by industry experts to monitor the ECMO circuit, one-on-one, at a patient's bedside. 

In addition to the ECMO specialists, Children's Colorado has an advanced clinical team specially trained in ECMO support. This team consists of dedicated ICU doctors, surgeons, nurses and perfusionists who oversee the program. This oversight includes specialized clinical and technical training, continued program development, investigation of new technology, and research to provide the best possible care for kids in need of heart and lung recovery.