A Device That Can Save Patients From The Worst Cases Of The Flu

Feb 14, 2018

So far this winter, more than 60 people have died in Connecticut of the flu. In many of those cases, the actual cause of death is respiratory failure -- the lungs stop working.

Luis Cordeiro went to a walk-in clinic on a Friday evening in March about two years ago. He went in not feeling well, but thinking he just had some minor illness. He left in an ambulance. It got so bad after a few days that doctors told his wife Victoria that they’d need to put Cordeiro on a respirator.

“They basically told me that there was nothing more they could do — the respirator was at its full capacity,” Victoria Cordeiro said, “and that he could be transferred over to Hartford Hospital, where they have this ECMO machine.”

Cordeiro said ECMO, Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation, saved his life.

“They told my wife I had a 10 percent chance to survive,” Luis Cordeiro said. “I’m here two years later, back to work and everything is back to normal. So, this is nothing to play with. If you’re sick, please go to the hospital.”

Dr. Jason Gluck said ECMO spares lungs from having to work so hard to remove carbon dioxide and bring oxygen to the blood.

“You can see that blood is drained from the patient from the leg, then goes to our pump, then to an oxygenator which adds the oxygen and removes the carbon dioxide,” said Gluck during a demonstration at Hartford Hospital on February 13. “Then it pumps it back into the body so that when the blood hits the lungs, it’s preconditioned. If the lungs aren’t working, it’s kind of okay. And then we can minimize the effects of a ventilator so the pressures are lower in the lungs and the amount of oxygen in the lungs is lower so that the lung can heal and repair.”

The prototype that Gluck used for his demonstration, he actually first made in his garage. He said that while other local hospitals may have ECMO, no one has what he calls ‘ECMO on the go.’

To use Luis’s case as an example, Cordeiro was hooked up to ECMO by Hartford Hospital staff at a different area hospital. Then, while still connected, he was flown by Life Star to Hartford Hospital.

For ECMO to work at its best, according to Gluck, respiratory failure needs to be recognized in patients as early as possible.

“If we get to somebody early, we can get to them before they can develop multi-organ failure -- before they can really get worse,” Gluck said. “There is a fair amount of data that the earlier you get to this technology, the better you’re going to be.”

And that’s why the Cordeiros are telling their story this flu season. Victoria and Luis went through so much – all because of one case of the flu.

“I remember my son saying ‘this is the flu? Are you sure it’s not something else?’” Victoria Cordeiro said. “I would say that the overall experience for me was the worst-ever in my entire life. I never thought that I’d ever face the possibility of being a widow.”

Hartford Hospital has seen 615 patients with flu so far this season. Dr. Jack Ross, the hospital’s Chief of Infectious Disease, added that out of all of the people that walked into the hospital with flu-like symptoms a few weeks ago, 50 to 55 percent of them had to be admitted. Ross said that number is now down about 10 percent — a sign flu season may be slowing down.