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Life Flight Newsletter

Memorial Hermann Life Flight Completes First In-Air ECMO Transport

After a year and a half of collaboration, preparation and planning between the Memorial Hermann Life Flight® team, the Center for Advanced Heart Failure at Memorial Hermann Heart & Vascular Institute-Texas Medical Center and UTHealth Medical School, Life Flight transported its first-ever patient on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO).

ECMO Life Flight“This is a tremendous accomplishment and our team would like to thank Igor Gregoric, M.D., for making this vision a reality,” said Igor S. Banjac, C.C.P., L.P., director of perfusion services at the Center for Advanced Heart Failure. “Additionally, I want to congratulate each team member on their exemplary work in safely transporting the patient in cardiogenic shock from Memorial Hermann Memorial City to Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center. We are very pleased to say that the patient was successfully weaned off ECMO and has since been discharged and is doing well.”

Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation is used to temporarily support patients who are not responding to other treatment modalities and have acute, life-threatening failure of the heart or lungs. Its purpose is to provide enough oxygen to the patient while allowing time for the lungs and heart to heal.

The ECMO machine is similar to a heart-lung bypass machine used during open heart surgery, but can be used for a longer treatment period. An oxygenator does the work of the lungs, adding oxygen to the blood, and an arterial pump helps the heart pump blood through the body. As the patient’s condition improves, the ECMO flow will be decreased so that the heart or lungs can resume their work.

Patients can now be transported via ground or air while receiving ECMO treatment thanks to the Center for Advanced Heart Failure’s acquisition of transportable ECMO devices, which do the same work as the traditional machines but are specifically designed for smaller spaces and transport. Because of these portable ECMO machines, Memorial Hermann Life Flight now has the ability not only to transport patients already on ECMO, but also to initiate ECMO and bring the patient back to Memorial Hermann-TMC to receive further treatment. 

During the inaugural ECMO flight, the patient was successfully initiated on veno-arterial (VA) ECMO by Biswajit Kar, M.D., and Pranav Loyalka, M.D., who are respectively chief and associate chief of the Medical division of the Center for Advanced Heart Failure and both on the faculty of UTHealth Medical School. Life Flight crew members Joel Benavides, R.N., Tracie DeVall, R.N., and pilot Hank Bigger were part of the groundbreaking transport.

The ECMO team included perfusionists Lisa Janowiak, C.C.P., and Michael Arcaro, C.C.P. Since this initial transport, Life Flight has transferred a second patient on ECMO, and the numbers are expected to grow.

“Memorial Hermann Life Flight is the only air-medical transport service in Houston – and one of just a few in the nation – with balloon pump and LVAD capabilities,” said Eric von Wenckstern, director of aviation and administrative director of Life Flight.

“Adding ECMO to this list is an enormous achievement and allows us to improve clinical outcomes for a substantial portion of our patient population.”