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Saving Harley

Harley Cook was on a ventilator in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of Northeast Georgia Medical Center (NGMC) Gainesville, fighting for her life. The day before, she had been the picture of health as she posed for her 34-week pregnancy selfie to document her rounding belly and the growth of her unborn daughter, Olivia. Suddenly, she spiked a high fever and was rushed to the emergency room.

“A blood test revealed I had H1N1, or swine flu,” Harley explains. “That night in the hospital, I started having a really hard time breathing. I remember my boyfriend, Matt, alerting the doctors, but I don’t remember much after that.”

Harley’s condition quickly became critical, and doctors made a decision to perform an emergency C-section to save baby Olivia. Harley was placed on a ventilator, but her condition did not improve — in fact her health continued to rapidly decline. Pulmonologist Craig Brown, MD, of Northeast Georgia Diagnostic Clinic, contacted Allison Dupont, MD, of The Heart Center of NGMC, and the two worked with other members of the hospital team to gain emergency privileges to begin extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) in an effort to save Harley’s life. ECMO is a process of removing blood from the patient, then oxygenating and rewarming the blood before returning it to the patient’s body. The equipment does the work of the lungs while the body heals, and for some patients, ECMO can also be used to aid heart function.

"With emergency privileges and family consent granted, the hospital team sprang into action to save Harley’s life. She remained on ECMO for five days before being weaned."

“Because the necessary oxygen wasn’t getting to her tissues, Harley’s heart and other organs had started to fail,” says Dr. Dupont. “We had tried to find a neighboring hospital with an available ECMO bed, but they were full, and the odds were that Harley would die before we could safely transport her there, even if one had been available.”  

Dr. Dupont went to the ICU to talk with Harley’s family.

“That conversation was very hard,” she says. “We told them that, without ECMO, Harley was certainly going to die.  With it, she may die.  And she was going to be the first patient that we had on ECMO here at NGMC, because it was brand new to us.”

The ECMO service was so new, in fact, that even though NGMC had the machine, it had not been officially approved for use yet.

With emergency privileges and family consent granted, the hospital team sprang into action to save Harley’s life. She remained on ECMO for five days before being weaned.

“My first question when I woke up was, ‘where’s Olivia?’,” says Harley, remembering the fear of realizing she was no longer pregnant. “I was terrified that we had lost her, but Matt told me she was fine. When I finally got to hold her, it all seemed so unreal.”

“Reuniting Harley with Olivia was a really special moment,” says Dr. Dupont. “There’s no question that, without ECMO, Harley would have died. Little Olivia wouldn’t have her mom today, if not for ECMO.”

Currently, there are only 22 ECMO beds available in the metro-Atlanta area — two of which are at NGMC. 

“While NGMC is extremely fortunate to have two units, we also understand the need for more — especially given a hospital system that serves more than 800,000 people,” says Louis Smith, Jr., president of NGMC Gainesville. “There may be times when both units are in use, meaning a third patient who needs the care would not be able to receive this life-saving support at NGMC. We want to do our best to make sure that never happens, which is why we requested $500,000 from The Medical Center Foundation to fund the purchase of two new ECMO units over time.”   

“ECMO is an amazing technology for the sickest of the sick,” Dr. Dupont adds. “We’re seeing more critically-ill patients every day, and being able to offer the best possible care means having access to technologies like ECMO. Adding more units and training staff to provide the needed support will allow the hospital to care for more patients in our region and save more lives.”

To learn more about how you can support NGHS' effort to expand the current ECMO program, click here.


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