ECMO treatment last resort for COVID, limited availability in Alabama

It rests the heart and lungs.
Published: Aug. 4, 2021 at 10:27 PM CDT
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - In the beginning of the pandemic, ventilators and PPE were in short supply, but a different machine is also desperately needed to treat COVID patients when other options run out.

ECMO, a fancy acronym for extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, is a treatment that helps the heart and lungs. Blood is pumped out of your body and they can filter it to take out carbon dioxide and put back in extra oxygenated blood.

Since COVID-19 makes it hard on the heart and lungs, oxygen can really help patients by giving those organs a break.

“There are only a few hospitals in the state who have ECMO capacity,” Dr. Don Williamson, former state health officer said.

If doctors feel ECMO is the best course of action, they may have to transfer the patient to a hospital that offers it.

“For some patients, ECMO is potentially a life-saving alternative,” said Dr. Williamson.

As hospitalizations rise, the likelihood of stretching those resources to the max, increase.

“We will find ourselves, as we move forward in situations, where we can’t find an available ECMO slot,” said Williamson.

UAB and Children’s are two of the few statewide hospitals with ECMO.

“It certainly was true in January, and it’s almost certainly going to be true again,” Dr. Williamson said of the strain.

ECMO is not easy, it’s considered one of the most invasive life-saving treatments.

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