On September 21, 2008, 26-year old ML started feeling short of breath. It quickly got worse; she began to feel dizzy and started sweating profusely. Her family called an ambulance and she was rushed to NewYork Presbyterian’s The Allen Hospital, where her condition worsened. Her lungs were failing. Corey Ventetuolo, MD, her first pulmonologist, knew that ML needed to be transferred to NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, but feared that she would die during the brief journey. Her family decided to take the risk.
ML did indeed flatline during the ambulance ride, but she did not die. Her survival despite severe lung failure is due to an advanced procedure known as ECMO, or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation – a process that takes over the function of the lungs. A patient’s blood is run out of his or her body, through the ECMO machine, which oxygenates the blood, and is then sent back into the body. The machine serves essentially as a set of mechanical lungs, allowing the patient to rest his or her biological lungs. It is less damaging than machines with a similar function, such as a mechanical ventilator, which forces the patient’s lungs to breathe and often harms them in the process.
When ML was put on ECMO in 2008, her pulmonologist, Jennifer Cunningham, MD, was hesitant to keep her on ECMO for over five hours, the recommended time limit. ML was the very first patient treated in the newly established Medical ECMO Program, and at that time, the full potential of ECMO was not yet very well understood. Dr. Cunningham recognized, however, that her patient was just barely clinging on to life; keeping her on ECMO was her only change for survival. So, with the family’s encouragement, ML was kept on ECMO for a full 13 days — and, against all odds, she recovered. Dr. Ventetuolo, who had remained deeply involved in her care, called it “miraculous.”
ML’s lung failure was caused by a cosmetic injection to her lower extremities gone awry. The silicone from the injection migrated into her bloodstream and found its way to her lungs, where it nearly killed her. Having survived this near-fatal episode, ML now speaks to women around the world, urging them to avoid cosmetic injections performed by unqualified, unlicensed practitioners, because as her story attests, they can have serious, if not deadly consequences.
*This blog post was originally published at Columbia University Department of Surgery Blog*