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Children’s Mercy was one of the first hospitals in the U.S. to offer an Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation Program (ECMO). Since launching the program in 1987, more than 500 children have been placed on ECMO, making it one of the highest-volume programs in the country. Children’s Mercy is a three-time winner of the Excellence in Life Support award from the Extracorporeal Life Support Organization (ELSO), which recognizes centers of excellence in patient care, training, and promoting the mission of ELSO. 

Our ECMO program is one of the largest in the U.S. and ranks among the top hospitals for survival rates of all diagnoses.

Saving children's lives with extracorporeal membrane oxygenation

ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) is a treatment used for patients with life-threatening heart and/or lung problems. It provides long-term breathing and heart support and is used only when all of the standard treatments for those problems have already been attempted. ECMO can support patients for days to weeks while doctors treat their underlying illness.

Commonly asked questions

The ECMO machine is similar to a heart-lung machine used for open-heart surgery. The surgeon places tubes into large blood vessels, usually on the right side of the neck. If your child has had heart surgery, the tubes may be placed in the chest. From these tubes, the blood is pumped by the ECMO machine through an artificial lung which adds oxygen and takes out carbon dioxide. The blood then returns to the child. The cycle is repeated many times each minute.

ECMO temporarily provides your child with the oxygen he or she needs and removes carbon dioxide waste product until his or her heart or lung problems have healed. ECMO does not cure lung or heart disease; it merely supports your child and allows time for the lungs and heart to heal. That is why we offer ECMO only to children whose lung and/or heart disease might be able to heal.

The length of time a child spends on ECMO varies. We consider the child's age, the type of lung or heart disease he or she has and any complications. The average time a newborn baby spends on ECMO is five to seven days. Some children may need to be treated with ECMO for a much longer time.

We strongly encourage visiting. Parents and grandparents are encouraged to visit frequently. Social workers will help you identify places to stay near the hospital of necessary.

Most children on ECMO are awake and alert and do not show signs of discomfort. Pain medication is provided when the cannulas are surgically placed and removed. 

There are several things you can do to help us with your child's care. These include:

  • Bringing special toys and comfort items 

  • Making sure your child hears your voice and feels your touch 

  • Recording yourself reading stories or singing songs so they can be played when you are not here

  • Have family members draw or color pictures to display at your child's bedside

  • Keep a journal on your child's progress and refer to it when visiting with your child's doctors  

Once the decision to place your child on ECMO is made, a team of ECMO doctors, neonatologists, pediatric intensivists, pediatrics surgeons, and perfusionists will be in charge of his or her care until about 24 hours after ECMO is discontinued. After this, the Neonatal or Pediatric ICU staff will resume care. While your child is on ECMO, two nurses will take care of your child. Both are experienced critical care nurses. The ECMO nurse in charge of the ECMO machine has completed specialized training in ECMO circuit management and emergencies.

ECMO survival outcomes

At Children's Mercy, we work hard to ensure the best outcomes for our tiniest patients. ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) is a treatment used for patients with life-threatening heart or lung problems. It provides long-term breathing and heart support. We are proud that our ECMO survival rates frequently exceed national averages. 

ECMO survival rates
ECMO survival percentages by diagnosis