Vancouver General Hospital hailed as North American leader in advanced life support

Nick Kanaan knows the medical system better than most people.

He lost two siblings to cystic fibrosis at a young age and the disease nearly cost him his life. But thanks to innovative technology and a team of health care professionals at Vancouver General Hospital, Kanaan is breathing easier these days and chasing his young daughter around the playground.

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“If it wasn’t for the team at VGH who stood by me in my darkest hour, I wouldn’t be here today,” Kanaan said in a press release. “They placed me on ECMO, which was my bridge to a lung transplant.”

Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) is an advanced form of life support that pumps and oxygenates blood outside the body so a patient’s heart and lungs can rest.

VGH is the first Canadian hospital to achieve gold level status from the the Extracorporeal Life Support Organization (ELSO) for its ECMO program. The hospital received the award at the ESLO’s annual meeting in Austin, Texas.

“This recognition is a testament to the excellent health care professionals at Vancouver General Hospital who bring teamwork and technology together to care for the most critically ill people in our province,” said Health Minister Adrian Dix. “As we can see with survivor Nick Kanaan, this technology is a lifeline for those with serious, life-altering conditions.”

The hospital has nine ECMO machines. There are two types of ECMO — one is connected to a vein and an artery for patients with heart and lung problems, while the other is connected to one or more veins, usually near the heart, for patients with lung problems.

The ECMO team includes doctors, nurses, perfusionists, respiratory therapists, physiotherapists, pharmacists, an extracorporeal life support specialist and dietitians.

To date, more than 130 patients at Vancouver General Hospital have benefitted from ECMO. Many of them, like Kanaan, needed the machine to survive until suitable organs become available.

“ECMO is game-changing,” said Dr. Hussein Kanji, intensivist and co-director of the ECMO program at VGH. “But it’s the expertise of our entire team that enables us to provide this gold standard of care. Ten years ago, we couldn’t keep people alive long enough to receive a transplant; now patients like Nick are on ECMO for extended periods, increasing their chances of survival.”

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