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ECMO Treatment Proving To Significantly Help Some COVID-19 Patients

CHICAGO (CBS) -- The worst of COVID-19 patients now have a new lifeline in an alternative therapy.

Chicago-area doctors said it could create a rapid turnaround when a ventilator proves useless.

CBS 2's Steven Graves spoke to a recovered patient and physicians who hope to use it as a breakthrough treatment.

It is the critical knowledge of a team of cardiovascular doctors and nurses that is forging a path in treating COVID-19 patients.

Physicians at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn are now using what's being called an ECMO machine.

"Because once they get on a ventilator, some of them do not improve," said Phillip Alexander, a treated COVID-19 patient. "It's kind of a last resort because they don't have any further treatments they can undergo."

It's not a replacement, but a dire alternative to a ventilator. It acts as an outside heart or lung that extracts blood, adds oxygen and pumps blood back into the body.

A respiratory relief for one patient was the hospital's first success.

Joe Ciarlette, 53, went home on Tuesday, but his rapid decline in health began almost a month ago. He got so sick. A hospital in Juliet could no longer care for him. He later woke up in Oak Lawn, hooked up to an ECMO machine.

With only mild discomfort, and days on the device, he was out of the ICU and back on oxygen.

""It was a little rough at first, Ciarlette said. "My body just kind of assumed breathing again and a few days after that they took me off oxygen all together."

"It was a culture shock, seeing his transition because again we're not used to this patient population, so it was a quick adapt," said nurse Angelina Johnson

"The technique with which we support them continues to evolve and change, but we have been very encouraged by our early results" added Antone Tatooles.

"I'm 100% grateful that there was that option, and without it we wouldn't be here talking," said Ciarlette.

Doctors are now treating dozens of patients on the ECMO machine. Hospitals across the nation are sharing varying results to study its effect on fighting the disease.

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