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NEWS | Feb. 25, 2022

59th MDW: Life-saving ECMO program hits milestone

By Staff Sgt. Amanda Stanford 59th Medical Wing Public Affairs

Since the adult extracorporeal membrane oxygenation program began at Brooke Army Medical Center more than a decade ago, the integrated teams of Airmen, Soldiers and civilian medical personnel have completed more than 200 transports.

ECMO requires a heart-lung machine that removes carbon dioxide and oxygenates the blood before pumping it back through the body allowing the heart and lungs to heal.

“ECMO is offered to patients with severe lung or cardiac failure as a life-saving measure,” said U.S. Air Force Col. Terry Lonergan, 959th Medical Group adult ECMO program deputy director. “Our goal is to maximize the survival of patients who have a high chance of dying from heart or lung failure. These are patients who would almost certainly have died if we didn’t use ECMO.”

As it has become more easily accessible, ECMO capabilities have become a regular aspect of critical care.

“The equipment has come a long way and has allowed ECMO to become a viable option for adults,” Lonergan said. “We have critical care air transport teams and ground surgical teams who strive to provide modern trauma care in forward-deployed locations, and ECMO is now part of that. This is the cutting edge of the standard of care”

BAMC’s Level I Trauma Center serves San Antonio and the surrounding region, caring for more than 4,000 military and civilian trauma patients. This life-saving support is a valuable resource to the community as the team can accept civilian ECMO referrals within 185 miles. The use of ECMO has also advanced combat casualty care and increased survival rates across the Department of Defense.

“The ECMO program at BAMC is used by not only the Air Force Medical Service, but the Department of Defense as a whole,” said Maj. Gen. John J. DeGoes, U.S. Air Force deputy surgeon general. “The teams respond to calls across the globe to help service members and their families, as well as members of the local community. It has been amazing to see how the program has grown and adapted, and I look forward to how it will change modern medicine in the future.”

Along with higher survivability rates, the ECMO process has improved over the decades.

“We have simplified the technique in many ways,” Lonergan said. “When ECMO started, we thought we had to heavily sedate patients, but now have patients who are awake, walking around the units, doing rehabilitation during longer ECMO runs. We call this awake ECMO. I would say that is the biggest advancement.”

After hitting the milestone of 200 ECMO transport missions completed in early February 2022, the program continues to adapt to the ever-changing COVID pandemic.

“With COVID, we have expanded our capability for numbers here at BAMC,” Lonergan said. “I would like to see us sustain our capability for a larger number of patients. It’s hard to say what the future will hold with COVID and how busy we will stay, but we are committed to supporting our local community and military beneficiaries.” 

The BAMC ECMO program has impacted nearly 300 lives thanks to the professionals who serve in it.

“We’ve got a very dedicated set of physicians, nurses and respiratory therapists who want to provide the best care to our beneficiaries and our combat casualties,” Lonergan said. “I’m always excited to see how dedicated they are to the program when a mission arises. They get up at all hours of the morning or night to save a life.”