What’s ECMO? Boy’s Story Illustrates ‘Ultimate Life-Saving Tool’
Mar 7, 2024
Gary Zavoral
sick baby on ecmo in hospital, left, and boy playing piano

Sutter Medical Center, Sacramento Children’s Center Receives Highest ECMO Award 

Twenty weeks into her pregnancy, Lisa and Luckson Emmanuel’s boy was diagnosed with a life-threatening condition called congenital diaphragmatic hernia. With CDH, the organs in the baby’s abdomen move upward into the chest, crowding the lungs and heart. The chances of survival, the Emmanuels were told, were 50-50.

Family and doctors posting for camera

In the top photo, Luckson Emmanuel as a baby was supported on ECMO for 12 days before receiving life-saving surgery, at left, and now plays piano and enjoys doing “ninja moves.” Above, the Emmanuel family returned to say thank you to the care team at Sutter Medical Center, Sacramento, including Drs. Craig Swanson, center left, and Dan Falco, center right.

Thankfully, the hospital where they were to give birth, Sutter Medical Center, Sacramento, is equipped with ECMO, short for extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. ECMO provides breathing and heart support, allowing time for the patient’s lungs and heart to heal by using a type of heart-lung machine to support the patient for days to weeks while doctors treat underlying illnesses.

After nearly two weeks on ECMO, the boy, named Luckson after his father, was strong enough to undergo successful surgery. Now 8, Luckson has few if any signs of his struggle with death.

“We are here because of ECMO and what the Sutter team did for us: gave our little guy a second chance at life,” says Lisa Emmanuel. “Today he is 8 years old and is in kindergarten. He has obstacles to overcome … but he’s very much a happy, healthy, excited-about-life, eager-to-please, sweet and thoughtful boy.”

Boy shows Spider-Man moves.

To his sister’s amazement, right, Luckson Emmanuel shows off his Spider-Man moves.

Luckson plays the piano, does “ninja warrior” moves and recently taught himself to do a backflip. “And he occasionally thinks he is Spider-Man,” his mom added.

It is because of “superheroes” at the Sutter Children’s Center that the hospital for children has a world-class ECMO program. Recently, the Sutter Medical Center, Sacramento Children’s Center was honored with the highest award given by the Extracorporeal Life Support Organization (or ELSO), an international nonprofit consortium of ECMO centers: the Platinum Level Center of Excellence Award. Only 49 other ECMO centers around the world have earned that distinction, and the Sutter Children’s Center is only the fourth in California.

The Emmanuels returned to Sutter Medical Center, Sacramento in March for the first time since Luckson was discharged to say thanks to the doctors, nurses and other staff who cared for Luckson and gave the family hope.

“There’s nothing better than having a family come back to the hospital who you told there’s little chance of survival,” said Dr. Craig Swanson, medical director of the Sutter Children’s Center, who as a pediatric intensivist helped care for Luckson.

Doctor speaking at podium

Dr. Craig Swanson praised Sutter Children’s Center’s ECMO program for “40 years of saving lives that otherwise would not have been saved, and 40 years of getting better at it.” It recently received the Platinum Level Center of Excellence Award from ELSO, one of only 50 Platinum-honored ECMO centers around the world.

Dr. Swanson called ECMO “the ultimate life-saving tool.” Sutter Medical Center was an early adopter of the technology, having brought it to help care for critically sick babies 40 years ago.

“ECMO saves lives when there’s nothing else that can be done,” Dr. Swanson said. “We have 40 years of saving lives that otherwise would not have been saved, and 40 years of getting better at it.”

For years, the ECMO program was used primarily for sick newborns and babies needing heart surgery. Recently, the staff expanded the service for any pediatric patient who needs life-saving care. For example, said Patti Taylor, nursing director of the Sutter Children’s Center pediatric intensive care unit, “It can be a sepsis patient in septic shock and there’s nothing more we can do for them, and we can put them on ECMO and save their life.”

Nurse showing ECMO machine

Nurse manager Thomas Lindsey displays how an ECMO machine works to save children’s lives.

Taylor credits ECMO nurse manager Thomas Lindsey with taking the hospital to the next level, along with physicians and nurses who needed extra training. “This achievement reflects the dedication, skill and teamwork that have made our ECMO program stand out among the others,” Taylor said. “It is through our collective expertise and willingness to embrace new technologies and best practices, and to continually work to improve, that the Sutter Children’s Center has risen to this level of excellence in the medical field.”

The Emmanuels expressed their thankfulness for this program with tears of joy.

“Congratulations to a stellar team,” Lisa said. “I’m proud that you’ve brought this high achievement and honor to our community. And thank you to those who are still here and went through this struggle with us. You cried with us, you prayed with us. You made all the difference in our journey.”

To learn more about ELSO and the Award of Excellence program, click here.

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