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Severe flu patients turn to ECMO as last lifeline

In a matter of days, you’ve succumbed to all of the typical flu symptoms – fever, chills, body aches and a cough that just won’t let up. But what you don’t know is that your cough is really an infection and you are getting sicker by the day.

While many people who experience the flu won’t become critically ill, there are some who will end up in the hospital from secondary infections and other complications. An estimated 200,000 people in the US are hospitalized each year because of the flu, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.

An estimated 200,000 people in the US are hospitalized each year because of the flu, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.

“People don’t realize how sick you can really get from the flu,” said Gary Schwartz, MD, thoracic surgeon on the medical staff at Baylor University Medical Center.

Because there were so many patients who needed critical care a few years ago, Baylor University Medical Center began utilizing a machine called extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) to help patients in lung failure recover faster and more efficiently.

“[ECMO] is a form of life support that essentially does the job of the lungs outside of the body,” Dr. Schwartz said. “It takes the patient’s un-oxygenated blood in through plastic tubing that is attached to the patient, pumps it through the machine, and then puts the oxygenated blood back into the patient’s body.”

The technology for this type of life support has been around for close to 50 years, but has increased in value and efficiency in the last decade as technological advances have made the machine a better choice for patients in lung failure.

“Other types of life support, like ventilators, are only meant to be used for a short period of time,” Dr. Schwartz said. “A patient can be on an ECMO machine for days, weeks and even months in some cases, giving the lungs more time to heal and recover from infection.”

Another advantage to utilizing ECMO is that patients can be awake and moving around while still receiving the oxygenated blood they need.

“When you’re on a ventilator, [doctors] usually have to put you in a drug-induced coma because it’s very uncomfortable,” Dr. Schwartz said. “And while you’re lying in bed, you can get muscle wasting, nutritional problems and other complications.”

Because the ECMO machine isn’t as uncomfortable, patients don’t have to be sedated and are free to move around. This helps prevent some of the issues that can arise when a patient is confined to a bed.

Baylor University Medical Center has one of the highest numbers of ECMO patients in the country. This is not only a result of treating patients in North Texas facilities, but it also stems from the mobile ECMO unit the healthcare system employs.

“Usually when someone is on a ventilator, they are too sick to be transported to another hospital,” Dr. Schwartz said. “Our ECMO team will go there, put them on ECMO and then bring them back to Dallas. We do this throughout Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, New Mexico and Louisiana.”

While technology is becoming more and more efficient at helping patients in lung failure recover fully, Dr. Schwartz said that is no reason to skip out on your annual flu shot.

“It’s extremely important to get your flu shot,” he said. “It’s quick and easy and could keep you from getting really sick or even dying.”

Have questions about the flu? Find answers here.

About the author

Jessa McClure
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Jessa McClure holds a degree in journalism and mass communication from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, TX, where she is currently an adviser for student publications. She has been a writer in the health care field since 2009.

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Severe flu patients turn to ECMO as last lifeline