For this week, I have been spending 8-9 hours a day inside the classroom and in the simulation laboratory trying to learn something new. Never too late to learn a new trick, even for an old dog. Though I admit I was almost half asleep in some of the lectures.
The hospital where I have affiliation with, will have a “new” intervention available as soon as next month. This treatment is called Extracorporeal Life Support (ECLS) or also known as Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO). So they are training us doctors (critical care specialists, cardiologists and thoracic surgeons), as well as nurses, respiratory therapists and perfusionists, so we can have this life support system off and running.
In a simplistic way, ECLS entails placing large tubes to suck out the blood from the patient. Then having the blood run into a machine where it will be bathed with oxygen and then pumped back into the body. ‘Extra’ means outside, and ‘corporeal’ means relating to body, thus out-of-body life support.
Does this mean the patient will have out-of-body experience?
For patients, whether kids or adults, whose organs have failed for one reason or another, especially the heart or the lungs, can be placed on this life support system to sustain them and keep them alive and buy some time. The use of this intervention is not by all means the first line of treatment but rather of a last-ditch salvo. But it definitely has saved lives, and more and more advanced centers are offering it. Our hospital will be one of the first to provide it in our state.
ECLS is not really a new procedure. This has been done for several decades now. Except before, the intervention is only limited to short period of time, like several hours only. The main use of this before was in the operating room during cardiac surgery. They run the blood out of the patient’s body and through this machine, while the surgeon stop the beating heart and tinker on it. I can imagine the heart surgeon singing Sting’s “Be still my beating heart” while he operates. Then the machine is shut off once the heart is beating again.
Now ECLS is also being used outside the operating room, and people are placed on this life support while in the Intensive Care Unit. They can be on this for a few days, a few weeks, or sometimes even months – while their own body and organs recover, or while they wait for a new heart or a new lung, or both, or until “kingdom come.”
Of course the complexity of this intervention is beyond what I can explain here, not to mention the immense cost to the already burdened health care system and the sensitive ethical questions involve, like who to place or who not to place, or when to continue and when to stop. Are we playing God?
While we are doing the training, one of the trainee commented with a sinister smile, “we are Dr. Frankenstein.”
Is this as close as we get to Frankenstein medicine? I don’t think so. We have not created a monster. Yet.