ECMO Machine Saves Young Woman’s Life

Birth control pills are generally considered to be a safe way to prevent pregnancy. However, certain types of oral contraceptives increase a woman’s risk of developing a blood clot by two to four times. For Somerville, Tennessee, teenager Hailey Duncan, birth control pills contributed to near-fatal blood clots in her lungs.

Today, Duncan is recovering at home before heading to Middle Tennessee State University, where she studies biology. However, during the summer, a pulmonary embolism blocked off most of the blood flow to her lungs and nearly extinguished her dreams of becoming an endangered species biologist.

An Advanced Form of Life Support

“I was working outside in the heat,” said Duncan. “It was hard to breathe, and I almost passed out. I called my parents to come get me. I felt better until the next day when I passed out at home, and my dad called the ambulance.”

Duncan went into cardiac arrest several times on the way to the hospital.

“Things quickly went downhill in the ambulance,” said Duncan. “My left lung collapsed. They put a tube in my chest. My heart stopped a few times, and they used CPR to revive me.”

By the time Duncan arrived at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Memphis, she was too sick for surgery.

“We quickly realized Hailey needed major intervention,” said Dr. Jeffrey Wright, medical director of critical care at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Memphis and president of Memphis Lung Physicians Foundation. “Normally, we use a clot-busting medicine, but in Hailey’s case, she was bleeding massively from the tube in her chest. ECMO was the best and only option.”

ECMO stands for extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. The machine that administers ECMO is similar to a heart and lung bypass machine used for open-heart surgery. Baptist doctors connected Duncan to the ECMO machine, which pumps and oxygenates blood outside the body before pumping it back into the body through tubes.

“We set up the machine in one of two ways,” said Wright. “We use ECMO to supplement lung function or both heart and lung function. In Hailey’s case, we needed ECMO to temporarily replace the function of her heart and lungs to allow them to rest.”

As a healthy, active young woman, Duncan recovered quickly and was off the machine after only three days. Typically, patients spend an average of one to six weeks on the ECMO machine.

“We rely on ECMO about 40–50 times per year,” said Wright. “Our program is unique because of the dedication we’ve put into it. We’re one of the only hospitals in Memphis and in the state of Tennessee that is certified through the Extracorporeal Life Support Organization. We strive to be a center of excellence in delivering specialized care, and our team receives extra training to be able to run the ECMO machine and save lives.”

A Rare Birth Control Complication

According to Wright, patients who take birth control pills shouldn’t panic. In fact, a woman who is on the pill is still at a lower risk of blood clots than she would be if she were pregnant.

“Overall, risk of blood clots is low, but it’s elevated when you take oral contraceptive pills,” said Wright. “Smoking, family history and being over age 35 also increase your risk.”

Doctors think Duncan’s birth control pills contributed to her blood clots, but it wasn’t the only factor. Further testing revealed that Duncan inherited a genetic blood disorder. The estrogen in her birth control pills, as well as an oral surgery to remove her wisdom teeth earlier in the year, likely escalated her condition.

“Because of my disorder, I’ll take blood thinners for the rest of my life,” said Duncan. “But I’m not going to let this slow me down. I’ve always been an active person. I love horseback riding and acrobatics. I’m grateful for the doctors and nurses at Baptist who took care of me — they’re the reason I can continue to do what I love.”

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