Your Healthy Family: How an artificial lung helps patients with severe COVID-19 recover

Posted at 7:37 AM, Dec 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-07 07:49:10-05

NAPLES, Fla. — Patients who come down with a severe case of COVID-19 can be put on a ventilator so they get the oxygen they need to survive. But sometimes that's not enough, and some patients are put on an artificial lung.

Fox 4 introduced you to Sean Hanley, a 53-year-old Naples man who got COVID-19 ten weeks ago, and is on an artificial lung at NCH Healthcare System's Baker Hospital.

"If a regular ventilator is not enough, that's when my team gets activated, and we provide ECLS: Extracorporeal Life Support. Adding an artificial lung," Dr. Gaston Cudemus, the Chief of NCH's Cardiovascular ICU and the Director of NCH's ECMO Program, said.

He said our lungs are like balloons: they inflate and deflate when we breathe in and out.

"When the lungs, because of COVID, get really rigid, the ventilator is not enough because the ventilator won't have the ability to inflate those lungs," Dr. Cudemus said.

That's why Sean Hanley was the perfect patient for an artificial lung.

"With the artificial lung, we have the ability to avoid using the patient's lungs and we can provide oxygen and remove CO2 with an extracorporeal lung," Dr. Cudemus said.

The artificial lung buys a patient time so the medications can work and the lungs can recover, or until a patient can get a lung transplant.

Hanley's blood is pumped out of his body through his neck, goes through a pump to the artificial lung, and an oxygenator adds oxygen to the blood and removes the CO2. The fully oxygenated blood then goes back into his body.

The artificial lung allows Hanley to be mobile, and lets Dr. Cudemus and the rest of the team to focus on other aspects of his recovery.

"We can get the patients out of bed, we can get the patients awake and comfortable, we can work with physical therapy, occupational therapy, nutrition to give enough time for those organs to recover,” he said.

During the last COVID-19 surge, Dr. Cudemus said they had up to five patients on this kind of support at a time.

Hanley said he feels lucky to be able to get this kind of care.

"I wouldn't be here unless it was for the doctor. Words can't describe how grateful I am," he said.

Hanley said he wants everyone to get vaccinated against COVID-19 so they aren't at risk of ending up on an artificial lung like him.