ECMO: A 'remarkable recovery rate' and philanthropic funding

By Matt Eisenberg | October 12, 2023
Bellezzo lead image

Dr. Joseph Bellezzo, am emergency physician at Sharp Memorial Hospital, led the effort to implement the world's first emergency department extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) program.

A light clicked in Dr. Joseph Bellezzo's head the first time he used an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine in the Emergency Department at Sharp Memorial Hospital.

"I thought, 'I wonder if I could use that in cardiac arrest patients,'" Dr. Bellezzo says. "There are these patients that are dying that do not need to die? It’s what you go into emergency medicine for."

Thirteen years later, Sharp HealthCare went from being the only emergency department in the world to use ECMO machines to training physicians and clinicians locally, nationally and abroad in the field of extracorporeal life support.

The Sharp HealthCare Foundation Golf Tournament, which celebrated its 50th anniversary on Monday, Oct. 9, 2023, helps fund the ECMO machines at Sharp Memorial.

“The most important part of our tournament and celebration is sharing the impact,” says Bill Littlejohn, CEO of the Foundations of Sharp HealthCare. “Golf proceeds have provided technology and equipment for the Cushman Emergency and Trauma Center at Sharp Memorial Hospital, most notably for the ECMO program, including training for ECMO with emergency physicians across Sharp. Our golf partners are truly saving lives.”

ECMO machines typically were used for premature babies that needed extra lung support. In addition to lung bypass, they can function as an artificial heart to pump blood throughout the body, oxygenated.

Rather than having doctors operate on the chest, the machines need to access only the femoral vessels in the groin.

To be put on ECMO, a person who has cardiac arrest must be relatively young and healthy, have had immediate CPR on them and have had good chest compressions, all within a 60-minute window.

“It’s not a save-all for everything, but in the right scenarios, we’re finding this really works,” Dr. Bellezzo says.

How much does it work?

“Your survival rate if you suffer cardiac arrest is close to 8%,” Dr. Bellezzo says. “It’s not like how it is depicted in television, where it seems that everyone wakes up.”

With the use ECMO in cardiac arrest, however, that number goes up to over 30%.

“We’re seeing a remarkable recovery rate,” Dr. Bellezzo says.

Bellezzo action

According to Dr. Joseph Bellezzo, the use of ECMO increases the survival rate of people who have cardiac arrest from around 8% to over 30%.

In the early days of establishing the program, Dr. Bellezzo started talking to more doctors to learn collectively more about the capabilities and benefits of ECMO. From there, he began practicing more on pelvic models. Then, he trained all the emergency room staff at Sharp Memorial Hospital. Over thirteen years, he also trained the ER doctors at Sharp Grossmont Hospital and most of the doctors at Sharp Chula Vista Hospital.

“We have a stable of ER doctors that can do this 24/7 in our emergency department,” Dr. Bellezzo says.

Sharp Memorial has eight ECMO machines, and the use of ECMO is expanding rapidly.

Not only is Dr. Bellezzo teaching Sharp doctors and nurses at a one-day intensive training session this fall, but he also founded the Reanimate Conference, a two-day event that teaches attendees from across the world the basics and the intricacies of resuscitative ECMO and ECPR.

This year’s conference will take place on Nov. 8-9 at the Sharp Prebys Innovation and Education Center.

“We do this super satisfying, highly intensive, exciting, mistake-free, one-time-shot procedure that requires a high level of precision,” Dr. Bellezzo says. “When it all comes together and that person goes on to live, it’s incredible."

Trisha Khaleghi, Maya Uli and Dr. Joseph Bellezzo at the Sharp HealthCare 50th Anniversary Golf Tournament.

Trisha Khaleghi, senior vice president and market CEO for Sharp HealthCare Metropolitan Hospitals; Maya Uli, a doctor who needed ECMO to save her life; and Dr. Joseph Bellezzo, who leads the ECMO program, attend the Sharp HealthCare 50th Anniversary Golf Tournament.

Learn more about how you can support the Sharp HealthCare Foundation and the ECMO program at Sharp.

Headshot of Joe Bellezzo, MD

Joe Bellezzo, MD, Board of Directors


Joe Bellezzo, MD is a board member of the Sharp HealthCare Foundation.

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