State-of-the-art technology supports heart and lung function in critically ill patients recovering from flu, COVID-19 and other severe injuries
Northside Hospital Heart Institute is now offering ECMO (Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation), a state-of-the art, life-saving technology, which gives full lung and heart support to some very critically ill patients.
“The device is essentially a heart-lung bypass machine that is the highest form of life support that we can offer a patient,” said Dr. Allison Dupont, interventional cardiologist and medical director of the ECMO program at Northside Hospital Gwinnett in Lawrenceville.
The heart‘s primary function is to pump blood through the body, delivering oxygen and nutrients to tissues. When the heart is not working, ECMO can take over by pumping the patient’s blood through a device that adds oxygen and removes carbon dioxide outside of the body, before circulating the blood back into the patient. Likewise, if the lungs are not working and a ventilator cannot provide enough support, ECMO can take over and perform the function of the lungs.
“We use ECMO in patients who have failed conventional therapies, patients who are on a ventilator with severe lung injury from the flu, COVID-19, or other potential injuries to the lungs,” said Dr. Dupont. “The device is a major addition to the Northside system, as it allows us to care for the sickest of the sick patients, rather than running the risk of transporting these patients to another facility for ECMO.”
ECMO is currently available through the comprehensive cardiovascular services at Northside Hospital Gwinnett. Northside Gwinnett is one of only 10 facilities in Georgia to offer ECMO.
With millions of people in Georgia, as the COVID-19 pandemic has continued and the acuity of patients has increased, so too has the need for ECMO services.
Greer Smith was one such patient who needed ECMO when he was diagnosed with COVID pneumonia in July 2021. Greer, 38, was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at the local hospital in Hazelhurst, Georgia. Over the next two days, he required intubation, to maintain his oxygen levels.
Greer’s doctor felt that his best chance at survival was going to be with ECMO, but the hospital did not have ECMO services. Hospital staff worked around the clock to find another facility that offered ECMO and had a bed available. They found Northside Gwinnett, and Greer was admitted on July 31 under the supervision of Dr. Dupont.
“I was hospitalized for 23 days, 19 of those days at Northside,” said Greer.
Greer tolerated the ECMO machine well. His heart and all other functions were good, but his lungs were very sick and needed time to rest and heal.
Dr. Dupont emphasizes that ECMO is not a treatment. It does not cure disease or illness, but rather it supports a patient’s heart and lungs, giving them a chance to rest and recover until they are able to function on their own.
“It cannot be utilized for every critically ill patient, but does have a broad range of indications and, many times, can save a patient that otherwise would have died,” Dr. Dupont added.
After 13 days on ECMO, Greer’s lungs had done what they were supposed to do and Greer was taken off the device. Once discharged home, he was eventually able to be weaned off of oxygen.
He is grateful for the care and support provided to him and his wife, Stephanie, who was in daily contact with doctors and nurses throughout Greer’s treatment.
“I will never forget how well I was treated at Northside, and I will forever be grateful for Dr. Dupont agreeing to treat me,” said Greer. “She and the rest of the staff were God sent and they saved my life.”
Six days after coming off ECMO, Greer was released to return home.
“I am still under the care of my primary care physician in Hazlehurst, and have some follow ups scheduled with a pulmonologist,” said Greer. “However, I am still around three weeks ahead of schedule in my recovery; I have weaned myself completely off of oxygen.”
“I am getting stronger every day, and I am confident that I will be back to normal very soon,” Greer added. Read more of Greer's story from AJC.com.
Health care providers who would like more information about the ECMO program at Northside Hospital Heart Institute should contact 855-662-6625.
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