How Does an ECMO Machine Use to Save COVID-19 Patient’s Life?

In this deadly pandemic, physicians and scientists around the globe are trying to find ways for effective treatments. ECMO machine has shown the promising results for the COVID patient’s recovery. This machine supports the heart and lungs of patients with severe respiratory distress.

The Extracorporeal Life Support Organization (ELSO) said that the ECMO machine has the potential to save a huge number of severely-ill patients. It is used for the patients for whom the ventilators have failed. This machine provides artificial oxygenation of RBCs and removal of CO2.

This is now used for the severe COVID-19 patients for whom ventilators are unable to maintain enough blood oxygen levels. ELSO reported that 55% of COVID patients who were on ECMO support have survived.

Working of an ECMO machine

ECMO machines are of 2 types – Veno-venous and Veno-arterial. Veno-venous is used to support the lungs while veno-arterial is used to support both the heart and lungs. 1-3 cannulas are required to connect the ECMO circuit to the patient.

The doctor makes a small cut on the right of the COVID-19 patient’s neck and inserts the tube into the jugular vein. Sometimes another tube is also inserted into the ceratoid artery. Both the tubes are then connected to the machine to oxygenate the blood.

The ECMO machine was first invented in the 1960s for newborn babies to support respiratory distress syndrome and cardiac issues. The plastic tube inserted through the neck allows the patient’s blood to flow out and enters into the oxygenation unit where the oxygenation of RBCs and removal of CO2 takes place and the blood is sent back to the body with a separate tube. The ECMO machine acts like the lungs and the heart of COVID-19 patients.

Contribution of ECMO machine for treating COVID-19 Patients

COVID-19 virus attacks the lungs and the heart of the patient. COVID-19 is unlike pneumonia or influenza as it affects all 5 lobes of the lungs (3 lobes on the right side and 2 lobes on left). The virus turns lungs patchy.

This is the real reason why COVID-19 patients get severe respiratory issues. The damage of all 5 lobes of the lungs so not allow the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. With the increase of CO2 level in the blood, the respiratory rate also increases and the body tends to breathe more to eliminate this extra CO2 but due to damaged lungs, it is not possible. This way CO2 remains in the blood and turns into acid.

The ECMO machine acts as a savior in this condition. The oxygenation of blood and removal of CO2 takes place artificially which in turn reduces the chances of any further damage to the body and allows more time for the body to fight the virus effectively.

This extra time is very necessary for the COVID patients. An average COVID-19 patient remains on ECMO support for around 10-12 days. Once the ECMO support is removed, they are kept in isolation where doctors observe their further recovery.

ECMO implementation is not easy

This highly useful machine requires months of training to gather a team of experts who can successfully handle ECMO. Although there are more than 500 global centers where ECMO can be installed but ELSO is only focusing on increasing the numbers of ECMO in the center where they already have a team for ECMO administration.

ECMO machine does not work on the COVID patients who are aged or dealing with chronic health issues. For example, 75 years old adult COVID patient with chronic diabetes or blood pressure is not going to be benefitted from ECMO therapy. However, for 40 years old COVIS patient with no chronic condition can be benefitted.


Although ECMO machines were originally developed for newborn babies from the last 5 years, it has proved to be a great support for adults also. The use of ECMO is increased even more for adults since the spread of COVID-19. ECMO machines are the reassurance that even if the ventilators fail, there is still another hope for COVID-19 patient’s survival.