Pre-hospital ECMO

Two cases are reported of the pre-hospital institution of venoarterial extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) for patients in cardiac arrest. One was from France and the other from Germany – both countries with mature physician-staffed pre-hospital systems. The two cases were a 9 yr old drowning victim1 and a 48 year old marathon runner2. They each received BLS then ACLS then ECMO, and both went from asystole to sinus rhythm after the institution of ECMO. Sadly both failed to neurologically recover and died in hospital.

If irreversible anoxic encephalopathy could be detected in the field, patients could be better selected for this intervention. An editorialist3 states:



Until we have a hand held device which can measure neuronal integrity on a cellular level in the field we must use our best judgement, and in many cases give the patient the benefit of the doubt by cannulating them, cooling for 24 h and then making a neurological assessment and withdrawing ECLS if necessary.


Other issues to consider are:

  • Can society afford this level of intervention?
  • Could this intervention, when associated with brain death, result in sufficiently recovered organs for transplantation?
  • How can the infrastructure be created to enable rapid institution of pre-hospital ECMO?

I suspect as the equipment becomes even more portable and self-maintaining, pre-hospital / retrieval physicians already expert in critical care interventions such as seldinger-guided vascular access will be the ones instituting this therapy. In the meantime, we await evidence of outcome benefit and some objective means of case selection.

1. Out-of-hospital extracorporeal life support for cardiac arrest—A case report
Resuscitation. 2011 Sep;82(9):1243-5

2. Out-of-hospital extra-corporeal life support implantation during refractory cardiac arrest in a half-marathon runner
Resuscitation. 2011 Sep;82(9):1239-42

3. Community extracorporeal life support for cardiac arrest – When should it be used?
Resuscitation. 2011 Sep;82(9):1117