Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) technology has come a long way since Philadelphia surgeon John Gibbon Jr., M.D., used his heart-lung machine to perform the first successful open-heart operation 60 years ago this year.
Now, a new UT Southwestern team of doctors and nurses is advancing heart and lung care a step further, using a new piece of technology Dr. Gibbon could only dream of. J. Michael DiMaio, M.D., Surgical Director of UTSW’s Lung Transplantation Program, and Fernando Torres, M.D., the Program’s Medical Director, recently formed a Short-Term Support (STS) team dedicated specifically to quickly bridging the sickest patients either to transplantation or LVAD therapy and, ultimately, to recovery.
“When people come in literally at death’s door, our STS team swings into action and puts them on very aggressive life-support measures, figures out if they’re a candidate for transplantation, and then keeps them alive for the transplant or whatever the next step happens to be,” explains Dr. DiMaio, the team’s Director.
Among the life-support measures the team expertly deploys in such emergencies is a portable heart-lung machine called CARDIOHELP, a mechanical circulatory support system designed to provide extracorporeal sustentation to replace or assist a patient’s circulation and respiration, helping physicians gain valuable time.
One of the machine’s salient features is how quickly it can be connected to a patient in an emergency situation.
“The CARDIOHELP does essentially what our ECMO machine does in the operating room, but whereas that machine is as big as two washing machines, the CARDIOHELP is about the size of an Igloo cooler,” Dr. DiMaio says. “It really is revolutionary to have that technology in such a compact machine and to be able to so easily hook it up in the ICU or push it around the hospital.
And it’s saving lives.”
In October 2012, the STS team used the CARDIOHELP for the first time and saved a 23-year-old patient.
No stranger to hospitals, Courtney, who was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at age 3, knew something was wrong when she checked in to UTSW’s St. Paul University Hospital on Aug. 23, 2012. In November 2011, then age 22, she had suffered a collapsed lung, but doctors were able to reinflate the organ. By August, however, she was again experiencing breathing problems and things were getting progressively worse.
By early October, her stats were bottoming out. Courtney’s other lung collapsed, and this time doctors could not reinflate it. “We thought we were losing her,” her mother, Laura, says.
The STS team stepped in and did what it was formed to do. Courtney was connected to the CARDIOHELP, and Drs. DiMaio and Torres made the decision to perform a double lung transplant. It took a week to obtain the organs.
“I absolutely believe the CARDIOHELP saved her,” Courtney’s mother says. “If not for that, she would not have been here to even be able to get the transplant. Her birthday is in February, but we tell her now she has two birthdays.”