October 3, 2003

ECMO patients reunite at Vanderbilt

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Melissa Wroe gets her face painted by a volunteer at the ECMO reunion, which reunited former ECMO patients and their families with Vanderbilt staff.

ECMO patients reunite at Vanderbilt

When 9-year-old Melissa Wroe was in the hospital being treated for pneumonia, her dad promised that she could get a kitten when she came home.

After fighting for her life for almost two weeks, and a month–long recovery, Melissa’s dad kept his promise.

Melissa named her new kitten ECMO, after the heart/lung bypass procedure that helped save her life.

The feline ECMO is now 5 years old, and Melissa is a healthy high school freshman in Jonesborough, Tenn. She took a break from her homework to travel five hours on Saturday, Sept. 27, along with her parents, Ken and Marcy Wroe, to attend Vanderbilt’s ECMO (Extra Corporeal Membrane Oxygenation) Reunion.

The gathering brought former ECMO patients back to Vanderbilt. Twenty-seven patients, with more than 80 family members, were reunited with the Vanderbilt staff who helped them through a shocking and traumatic time in their lives.

The former patients ranged in age from 3 months to 23. They enjoyed an afternoon of barbeque sandwiches, live music, face painting and games. It was a casual gathering, providing families with the opportunity to talk with the staff members who made a large impact on their lives.

“ECMO is often the last option, the child’s last chance at life,” said Randall Bartilson, RN, ECMO Program Manager. “Families have emotional decisions to make, and our staff works with them through this stressful process.”

For the Wroe family, the decision to put Melissa on ECMO was scary, but it was also their only option.

“Melissa just kept getting more and more sick. She was almost blue, and the pneumonia was getting dramatically worse,” Ken said. “I knew we had to get her to Vanderbilt. After she was transferred, they had tried nitric oxide, and when that failed, we decided to try ECMO.”

Ken, a nurse, had heard about the procedure and realized it was the only option for saving his daughter. Melissa was on ECMO for five days when her lungs improved, and she was able to begin functioning on her own.

“The reunion brings back so many memories,” Marcy said. “We’re so grateful to be here.”

“The reunion is beneficial for staff and families,” said Dr. John Peitsch, Surgical ECMO Director. “The last time the staff sees these patients, they are still very sick. It is nice for them to see the children living their lives after ECMO. And for patients and their families, it’s great to meet other families who’ve been through the same thing.”

Many families have questions about the long-term effects of ECMO, and were able to see other children who have undergone the procedure.

“Many parents and patients inquire about how other previous ECMO patients are doing and what problems or struggles they may have related to ECMO,” Bartilson said. “Many want reassurance that as their infants grow, they will live a normal life without devastating complications.

“And many families simply want an opportunity to say thanks. This is very therapeutic for our staff, which sees the sickest of the sick children—it gives them a look on the brighter side of what we do.”

For 13 year-old Chelsea Brown and her mother, Norma Smith, of Hendersonville, Tenn., it was their fourth ECMO reunion — Chelsea was Vanderbilt’s first ECMO patient in 1989. Chelsea was born with Meconium Aspiration Syndrome and was rushed to Vanderbilt.

“I remember when I found out Chelsea was on ECMO,” Smith said. “Her father had gone to Vanderbilt while I stayed at the hospital in Hendersonville. They gave me a Polaroid of Chelsea on the machines that said first ECMO on it. I asked, ‘First this month?’ ‘No,’ they said, ‘first ever.’ I was nervous, but the procedure worked, and I was able to take my baby home a month later.”

Chelsea has had no long-term effects from being on ECMO. She’s a “gifted student, a talented artist and her own person,” according to her mother.

Melissa, who has also seen no negative effects from the procedure, has been very touched by her experience and won’t soon forget what she went through. After she finishes high school, she’s planning on going to medical school — maybe even at Vanderbilt.

What is ECMO?

ECMO (Extra Corporeal Membrane Oxygenation) is a heart/lung bypass procedure used to treat infants, children and adults in cardiac or respiratory failure. Blood is pumped out of the body into an artificial lung, where it is oxygenated. The blood is then returned to the blood vessels. This process allows a patient’s heart and lungs to mature, rest or heal.

There are two types of ECMO: VA and VV – the method chosen is based on the needs of the child. VA or veno-arterial ECMO supports both the heart and lungs by draining blood from the vein and returning it to the artery. VV, or veno-venous, ECMO supports the lungs, draining blood from a vein and returning it to a vein. ECMO is similar to the bypass that is used in operating rooms, but can be used for longer periods of time.