Rare Machine Helps Save Lives in South Florida Hospitals

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Sophisticated medical technology can be used in Florida hospitals to help COVID-19 patients stay alive. It’s rare and risky.

It’s a machine of last resort for hospitals treating patients with COVID-19. 

Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation(ECMO) machines have become so needed during the coronavirus pandemic that hospital leaders share them with each other over hundreds of miles.

ECMO machines are for patients who are really on death’s doorstep, past the use of a ventilator. There are around 6,000 of these machines in the country, according to a voluntary database.

Once you’re on one, you have less than a 50 percent chance of living.  

“If the ventilator is not enough then our team gets activated,” said Dr. Gaston Cudemus, who runs a team at the Cleveland Clinic in Weston. 

The machines act as a mechanical heart and lungs outside of the body, pumping a patient’s blood through tubes connected to the neck or groin, adding oxygen to the blood and pumping it back into the body. A patient can be on the machine from several weeks to two months waiting for their body to recover after catching COVID-19. 

“The lungs are like a balloon. So we take a deep breath and we get oxygen in and we take a breath out and we get oxygen out. COVID, one of the things it does is it makes the lungs very rigid,” Dr. Cudemus said.

Across the country there are reports of waiting lists because of the pandemic. 

“They have become a tool of last resort I want to say,” Dr. Matthias Loebe with the University of Miami Transplant Center said. 

Dr. Loebe tells NBC 6 the machine is not for everyone because the procedure can be risky and intrusive. It is not always recommended for the elderly or the frail but since hospitals have been filling with younger unvaccinated people they’ve been in high demand. 

“You ask me how many machines we have? But the bigger limiting factor is how many beds we have, how many nurses we have. The personnel to take care of these patients are in very short supply with this epidemic,” Dr. Loebe said. 

Hospitals with Memorial Healthcare, HCA East, and Broward Health also use the machines per spokespeople. 

Dr. Cudemus at the Cleveland Clinic tells NBC 6 they’ve been sharing like never before. 

“We’re in close communication with all the centers around the area to have the ability to support each other,” Dr. Cudemus said. 

Doctors usually use these machines when they’re doing organ transplants. Medical professionals say the best way to never get on one an ECMO machine during the pandemic is to get vaccinated, social distance, and wear a mask in public.

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