& Vascular

Published on April 30th, 2014

Student’s Life Saved with Latest Cardiac Technology

Technology Performs Heart and Lung Duties

Dr. Jane Garnjost is finally allowing herself to envision her son Jake standing in front of a classroom teaching a history lesson. From the time an illness nearly took his life two years ago until just recently, Jane had stopped herself from looking too far into her son’s future.

In January 2011, Jake, a Penn State secondary education major, was losing his battle against an infection that was attacking his body’s major organs. He would not have survived had it not been for extracorporeal life support (ECLS). Also known as extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), this advanced technology provides prolonged respiratory and cardiac support to patients whose organs are so severely diseased or damaged they cannot normally function on their own.

Jane credits her son’s life to ECLS and the dedicated team led by St. Luke’s cardiothoracic surgeons Stephen A. Olenchock, DO and Jose D. Amortegui, MD, two of only a few physicians in the region proficient in ECLS.

Two years ago, Jane was immediately concerned about her son, who has a weakened immune system due to childhood leukemia.

“The virus he had would have been a cold to us,” Dr. Garnjost said. “But to Jake, with his immune system, it was overwhelming. When I picked him up from school, his oxygen level was low and he was not responding to the antibiotics and flu treatment. The next day he was worse.”

He soon developed pneumonia and was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit of St. Luke’s University Hospital-Bethlehem Campus. When his condition continued to worsen, pulmonologist Dr. Kirth W. Steele suggested ECLS.

Dr. Olenchock, who managed Jake’s care, said ECLS is only used when nothing else is working.

“His mom is a doctor; she knew there were no other options. If he didn’t get enough oxygen he was going to die. At another hospital, the ventilator would have been Jake’s last chance, but fortunately here at St. Luke’s we had one more card to play to give him the best chance of survival.”

Offered in university settings with advanced cardiology programs, ECLS uses a special machine similar to those used during bypass surgery. Performing the duties of the heart and lungs, the device removes carbon dioxide from the blood, enriches it with oxygen, and then delivers it back, supplying the entire body.

“It is crucial that the brain, kidneys, liver and other organs have constant and sufficient levels of oxygen to prevent the development of significant, and often irreversible, damage,” Dr. Amortegui said. “When Jake’s lungs couldn’t provide ample oxygen, ECLS was able to perform this function while giving these vital organs an opportunity to rest and heal.”

While Jane, her husband Wayne and younger son Matthew, a physical therapy student, took turns at Jake’s bedside, a team of health care professionals provided the sophisticated level of care he needed.

With no recollection of his ECLS experience, the aspiring social studies teacher is happy to be back in school.

As for Jane, she looks forward to the day when he lands his first professional job. “Then, I’ll feel like he can finally take care of himself,” she said. “I’ll finally be able to lay my head on my pillow and sleep soundly.”

Within one hour of the decision to use ECLS, a patient at any St. Luke’s University Health Network Hospital can be transferred to St. Luke’s University Hospital-Bethlehem Campus and be connected to the potentially life-saving technology.

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