What is ECMO?

ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation) is a lifesaving treatment for the most critically ill babies, children and teens. When your child’s heart or lungs are unable to do their jobs, ECMO can take over temporarily with a mechanical blood pump and artificial lung. The treatment keeps blood flowing and carrying vital oxygen while your child’s body has a chance to recover.

ELSO LogoThe ECMO program at Children’s Minnesota is the largest and oldest in the state. Since 2008, it has received the Extracorporeal Life Support Organization Award for Excellence in Life Support. This national award recognizes superior patient care, physician and staff training, continuing education, collaboration and communication.

Award-winning care when it’s most critical

ECMO, extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, is a circuit of blood tubing, a blood pump and an oxygenator (which adds oxygen to blood). The circuit temporarily acts as a patient’s heart and/or lungs while he or she recovers from an underlying condition or until another solution can be found (such as transplant). ECMO is typically used for patients who are critically ill and who haven’t responded to standard advanced life support treatments such a ventilator and medications.

ECMO is comprised of an intricate circuit in which a portion of the patient’s blood is removed through a tube placed in a large vein or the heart. The blood flows through the ECMO oxygenator, where oxygen is added and carbon dioxide is removed. Then the blood is pumped back into the body, where it is available to be used by the patient’s vital organs (brain, heart, lungs, kidneys, liver and gut). In some cases, ECMO also does the work of the heart by pumping the blood to all the vital organs.

Some children only need to be on ECMO for a few days while their bodies recover. Others may need to stay on the treatment for weeks. During this time, your child is given sedatives and pain medicines as needed to stay comfortable. Your child can still hear your soothing voice and feel your tender touch, and we encourage your involvement. We do all we can to make Children’s a welcoming home away from home for your family while your child is here.


At Children’s Minnesota, we know how important reliable information about conditions and illnesses is.