Advanced life support for severe heart and lung conditions

Many health challenges can affect how well your heart or lungs work. If you have a severe heart or lung condition, doctors might recommend a special therapy offered at UW Health. 

Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, can be life saving. It doesn’t cure a heart or lung disorder. However, it does temporarily take over the work of these organs. This gives them time to heal. In some cases, ECMO is used until another treatment can be provided. 

UW Health offers ECMO for children and adults. We’ve been recognized with the Gold Level Award for Excellence in Life Support by the Extracorporeal Life Support Organization. This award speaks to the exceptional care we provide. It also shows our commitment to staff training, equipment and collaboration.

Our Med Flight team can be critical to delivering ECMO therapy. We take specialty care providers to a patient to initiate ECMO, and we can transport patients who are receiving ECMO therapy.

About the treatment

What is ECMO?

ECMO is a type of life support. It uses a machine to help get rid of carbon dioxide from your blood and supply needed oxygen. The machine pumps oxygen-rich blood out to your body, much like your heart would typically do.

As with any therapy, there are potential benefits and risks with ECMO. Our team will give you all the information you need to know so you can make an informed decision. 

Who is ECMO for? 

ECMO might be helpful for people dealing with:

  • A massive heart attack 

  • Heart or lung failure 

  • Severe lung infections, including COVID-19 

Depending on your needs, we can use ECMO for just a few hours or for several weeks. In some cases, a person’s condition improves. In others, the treatment provides time until a donor organ is found or a person can get other treatment. The ECMO program works closely with our heart transplant and lung transplant programs.

Treatment process

Helping your heart and lungs heal

What are the steps in treatment?

ECMO involves the following steps: 

These are plastic tubes inserted into large arteries or veins in the neck, chest or leg. The procedure is done while you are under sedation.

The ECMO machine pulls blood that’s lacking oxygen out of a vein through one of the tubes.

This takes place in the machine’s oxygenator. The oxygenator acts like an artificial lung.

The machine pumps the oxygen-rich blood back to the body. The pump pushes the blood out with the same force as the heart.

How are patients monitored? 

We provide ECMO in the intensive care unit (ICU). An ECMO specialist —a perfusionist or respiratory therapist — will watch the person closely. They monitor blood pressure, heart rate and oxygen levels. Team members also check blood gases — oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the blood. As needed, they adjust the ECMO machine. 

Usually, patients on ECMO are on a breathing machine (ventilator) as well. Seeing a loved one connected to this equipment in the ICU can be frightening. Our staff will explain everything to family members, answer questions and try to help everyone feel more at ease. They’ll attend to your needs as well as those of your loved ones.

Patient stories

ECMO helps save man found not breathing with no pulse

A screen showing a heart rate
ECMO can produce remarkable results
Although it isn’t right for everyone, it has saved many lives. Read one man’s amazing story
After fighting COVID-19, miracle mom finally meets baby she gave birth to while in a coma
Nearly three months after being diagnosed with COVID-19 and giving birth to her newborn baby while in a coma, Kelsey Townsend was discharged from University Hospital in Madison last Thursday and reunited with her husband and four children.

Meet our team

Providing high-tech, life-saving care with a human touch

Our expert team includes cardiothoracic surgeons, perfusionists, respiratory therapists and registered nurses. They work closely with heart, lung and critical care doctors to help you get the best possible care.

Cardiothoracic Surgeons
Interventional Pulmonologist


Serving Madison and surrounding communities

We offer ECMO at University Hospital in Madison, Wis. We also serve as a resource to other communities in our region. 

A smaller hospital can place patients on ECMO in their facility. However, they partner with us to ensure their patients receive the high-level care and expertise the patients need once they’re on the ECMO machine. Our Med Flight critical care transport program has the skilled staff and equipment to move these critically ill patients to UW Health. 

If a hospital does not have the ability to place a patient on ECMO, our team can also travel to the hospital and initiate ECMO treatment before transporting the patient.