In 2016, Seattle Children’s extended their mobile extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) capabilities to provide the service to critically ill children during transport to the hospital from anywhere in a five-state region. ECMO is an advanced life-support therapy that functions for the heart and lungs when the organs fail or need to rest. Seattle Children’s became the first children’s hospital on the West Coast to offer mobile ECMO service, providing critically ill patients with life-saving cardiac, respiratory or transplant care while they are being transported to the hospital.

“The main reason we developed mobile ECMO is because it enables us to take care of kids over a very broad region and offer the same type of high-level medical care to the kids who are not fortunate to live near a hospital like Seattle Children’s,” said Dr. Michael McMullan, chief of Cardiac Surgery and director of mechanical cardiac support and extracorporeal life support services at Seattle Children’s, as well as an professor of surgery at the UW School of Medicine. “When we looked at data in Washington state, we found that kids who do not live near a hospital like ours are at a three-fold increased risk of dying of illness due to a lack of access to care.”

Seattle Children’s partners with Airlift Northwest, the Pacific Northwest’s leading air medical transport provider, to transport critically ill children in Washington, Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana and Oregon to Seattle Children’s. The mobile ECMO team includes cardiac surgeons, intensivists, perfusionists, intensive care nurses, and advanced critical care transport nurses. They travel by ambulance, helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft to reach children in distant communities who are considered too fragile to be transported.

Picture of girl with pig tails sitting on a couch smiling

Today, nearly two years after being placed on ECMO, 13-year old Maddy Stahl is in perfect health

Patients like 13-year-old Maddy Stahl and her family know first-hand the importance of mobile ECMO. Maddy was brought into a local children’s hospital in Portland with undiagnosed type 1 diabetes in January 2020. While there, Maddy went into cardiac arrest and was placed on ECMO. After being on ECMO for a week with no improvement, the team felt Maddy’s best chance at survival was to be transferred to Seattle Children’s.

Since Maddy had gone into heart, kidney and respiratory failure, remaining on ECMO during her transfer to Seattle Children’s was essential. As soon as Seattle Children’s received the call, their transport team sprang into action. An ambulance equipped with mobile ECMO equipment, as well as a skilled and experienced mobile ECMO team, provided necessary life-support therapy to Maddy during the three-hour ambulance ride from Portland to Seattle.

After arriving at Seattle Children’s, Maddy remained in critical condition for five months, unable to stand or walk. In May 2020, she finally received the gift of life, a heart and kidney transplant. Today, nearly two years after being placed on ECMO, Maddy is in perfect health and handling her type 1 diabetes well.

“She is now taller than me and a very bright, sassy teenager,” said Maddy’s mom, Katie. “We are so grateful she was able to be transported on ECMO and given the chance to survive.”

Seattle Children’s has been named a Center of Excellence by the Extracorporeal Life Support Organization because of its expertise with technologies like ECMO. Seattle Children’s Heart Center, among the busiest heart centers in the nation, treats some of the region’s most complex heart disease cases. Seattle Children’s also has one of the largest pediatric heart transplant programs in the country with one of the highest patient survival rates.

Hospitals interested in requesting an ECMO transport evaluation should contact Neonatal and Pediatric Transport at 206-987-5437 (KIDS).