OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — An extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, machine is a device that is typically used in open-heart surgery to bypass the heart and lungs.
It draws blood through an artificial lung to add oxygen and remove carbon dioxide before being warmed and pumped back into the body.
Dr. Dena Hubbard, a pediatrician specializing in neonatology at Children’s Mercy Hospital, described a new use doctors have found for the machine amid the COVID-19 pandemic during a press conference with Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly on Friday at Saint Luke’s South Hospital.
Hubbard said there were “some COVID-positive moms” who delivered, sometimes prematurely, last year amid the initial waves of the pandemic, including some mothers and children who died.
But the severity and number of unvaccinated mothers hospitalized with COVID-19 have spiked amid the delta variant.
She described an increasing number of infants on ventilators and mothers who end up requiring an ECMO machine.
“This year, we’re seeing many more COVID-positive moms — unvaccinated, with more severe illness, needing not only ICU care but ECMO,” Hubbard said. “It’s a heart-lung bypass, like when you have open-heart surgery and they have a machine that has to do everything for your blood for your heart and lungs. More and more babies are being delivered prematurely so their moms can be on ECMO.”
Low oxygen levels in the blood is one of the more common complications associated with severe, possibly fatal, COVID-19 infections.
“We’re also seeing an exponential increase in the number of babies with COVID ... and they are severely ill,” said Hubbard, indicating that many cases are caused by community spread. “This is very different from last year, and it’s heartbreaking. It’s heartbreaking to have a mother and her baby separated, because they’re in the ICU, on ECMO or, worse, dead. Discharging a baby home without a parent is very sad.”
She also stressed that vaccinations and wearing masks are the best way to ensure children can remain in classrooms during the 2021-22 school year.
“If this continues, we will see outbreaks in schools, kids will be in quarantine, schools may shut down without an option for virtual learning and children will die,” Hubbard said. “We know how to keep kids safe and we know how to keep kids in school.”