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How hospital uses artificial lungs to save lives
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Charlie Nix, ECMO coordinator, demonstrates aspects of the Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation machine at Northeast Georgia Medical Center on Friday, Aug. 24, 2018. This machine circulates blood outside the body, puts in oxygen and removes carbon dioxide. Gainesville is the only hospital in the region with this technology. - photo by Austin Steele

On March 30, 2017, T.J. Veasley was riding in the backseat of a friend’s car on Dawsonville Highway. The group was coming back from Dawsonville and had just stopped for doughnuts.

Then, suddenly, when they were trying to turn on to Sardis Road, the group’s car was struck in the side by another vehicle. Veasley, now a 20-year-old Lanier Tech student, doesn’t remember much after that because he was in a coma at Northeast Georgia Medical Center.

He does know why he is alive, though — a treatment called extracorporeal membrane oxygenation.

The treatment uses a pump to circulate blood through an artificial lung back into the bloodstream, providing oxygen to tissues that would otherwise die. The system has been used on infants for years but is now increasingly used on adults whose lungs cannot provide oxygen to their blood.

“If it wasn’t for the ECMO, if I wasn’t a candidate, I would not be alive,” Veasley said. “I am very thankful for that machine because it saved my life.”

The medical center in Gainesville is the only hospital in the region to have the technology, with the next closest machines located in Atlanta. According to the Extracorporeal Life Support Organization, seven hospitals in Georgia, including the one in Gainesville, have ECMO services.

NGMC started providing the treatment in 2016. Since then, 49 patients have received ECMO treatments, and 30 of them have survived to discharge or transfer, according to Charlie Nix, the ECMO coordinator for Northeast Georgia Health System.

The start of the hospital’s ECMO service was accelerated two years ago when an expectant mother came to the emergency room with a high fever. She was then diagnosed with H1N1, or swine flu, and doctors had to perform an emergency cesarean section to deliver her baby. Then, the mother’s health continued to decline.

The hospital was weeks away from starting the service, and staff had been trained for the technology and were finalizing details. But when other hospitals offering ECMO were full, NGMC decided to offer ECMO to the mother. Both mother and daughter survived.

NGMC currently has two ECMO units but wants to purchase two more. The Medical Center Foundation of NGHS has been seeking donors for the machines, which cost $250,000 each.

“So many times, what the doctors tell us, is when someone needs one … there’s not enough time to transfer them to Atlanta. It’s critical,” said LeTrell Simpson, board chair of the foundation.

Dr. Allison Dupont, an NGMC cardiologist and medical director of the ECMO service, mingled with former ECMO patients Friday at an event honoring the survivors and raising awareness of ECMO. The opportunity to reconnect with her patients could not be taken for granted, she said.

“It’s meant a lot to me to see these patients coming back that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to see. These chairs would have been empty if it wasn’t for ECMO,” Dupont said.

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