The Miraculous Recovery of the Medical ECMO Program’s First ECMO Transport

In September, 2008, Melissa, then a healthy 27-year old, started feeling short of breath. She became so ill that her family called 911 and she was rushed to NewYork-Presbyterian/Allen Hospital, where she had a dangerously low oxygen levels and was placed on a mechanical ventilator to help her breathe. Mysteriously, her lungs were filling with blood. Despite maximal support, including the need for a ventilator, the bleeding in her lungs caused her to suffer a cardiac arrest. The doctors at NewYork-Presbyterian/Allen immediately called their colleagues at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center for help. The option of ECMO was raised by Dr. Jennifer Cunningham, who would be the one to receive Melissa on transfer. ECMO is a device that acts as a temporary, artificial lung by providing oxygen to the body in cases of severe lung failure. However, ECMO has its own set of risks. It traditionally requires anticoagulation, or blood thinners, which could worsen Melissa’s ongoing bleeding. Furthermore, in her current condition, Melissa was too unstable to be transferred on the ventilator alone. Given that she had suffered two cardiac arrests and had almost no detectable oxygen levels, her doctors felt she had no choice, determining that transfer on ECMO, offered her the best chance at survival. Melissa required ECMO for nearly two weeks and against all odds, she recovered. Dr. Cunningham called it “miraculous.”

After their experience with Melissa, Dr. Matthew Bacchetta, Director of the Adult ECMO Program, and Dr. Daniel Brodie, Director of the Medical ECMO Program, helped lead the field in reducing the amount of anticoagulation used in ECMO, thereby reducing the risk of bleeding. During Melissa’s illness, it was learned that her lung failure developed after an improperly-performed cosmetic injection. The silicone from the injection migrated through her bloodstream to her lungs, where it caused the severe bleeding that nearly killed her. After surviving this near-fatal episode, Melissa is grateful to be alive, and now educates women on avoiding procedures with such serious, and potentially deadly, consequences.