Healthwatch 16: ECMO

DURYEA, Pa. -- A young wife and mother in Luzerne County has quite the story to tell. She has asthma that seems to be getting worse and had an episode earlier this year that doctors say could have killed her.

If you've never experienced an asthma attack, 30-year-old Amanda McAndrew from Duryea, who has had the condition for half of her life, offers this:

"You just feel everything tighten and it closes in and nothing moves. You're gasping but nothing's coming in, nothing's going out. It's terrifying."

Her voice sounds the way it does ever since March when she had an asthma attack that could have killed her.

That's when Amanda got in the car to drop her younger daughter off at school and soon after collapsed in the driver's seat.

"When I called her at 8:30, a construction worker answered her phone, the guy who found her," said Amanda's husband Michael McAndrew.

"Everything went downhill, and I had to be put on ECMO to save my life," Amanda recalled.

"ECMO very simply stands for extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. It's a fancy way of saying we take the blood out of the patient's body, put it into a machine that puts oxygen back into it, and puts it back in the patient's body," explained Dr. Deepak Singh.

Dr. Singh is director of cardiothoracic surgery for Geisinger Northeast. He says when someone's lungs can no longer filter out the carbon dioxide which can happen for a number of reasons, the bedside life support system known as ECMO is an option. They're using it more these days, and sooner.

Amanda doesn't remember much about her stay. She does remember ECMO coordinator Evan Gajkowski who gave us a demonstration of how it works at Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center.

Amanda's husband, a biomedical engineer who works on medical equipment for a living, knew how serious the situation was to have called for ECMO.

"They're using it more and more. And it's second nature now. (It's) saving lots of lives, I know that," he said.

Amanda now has a scar looks like a bite mark, she thinks, but wanted to talk about it so other people knew that something that might sound like science fiction can save their lives.

"Even, like, the things I don't want to get out there, don't want to relive, if it's helping somebody else, I'll be more than happy to share it."

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