Technology saves life of island woman after boating accident

An island woman pulled lifeless from storm-whipped waters off of Burien three weeks ago after a boating accident that took her companion’s life has made a full recovery with help from technology usually reserved for use during open heart surgery or the care of premature infants.

As reported in The Seattle Times last week, the young woman (who does not want to be identified) was found floating face down in the water by the Coast Guard after her distress call — which ended with a scream and then silence -—and a couple of hours of searching through strong winds and waves in the early morning hours of Jan. 21.

The search crew began CPR, which was continued in the ambulance that transported her to Harborview Medical Center. Upon arrival there, the Times reported the woman’s core body temperature was only 77 degrees and that it had likely been several hours since she had had a spontaneous heartbeat or had taken a breath on her own.

The trauma team at Harborview immediately placed her on ECMO or Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation — a specialized pump that is designed to work in place of the heart and lungs, and also warms the blood before its return to the patient. It’s a technology that has been used for many years almost exclusively for patients undergoing open heart surgery and premature or sick infants in intensive care.

But, according to the story, Harborview has started using its ECMO machines more widely, to treat people with “otherwise fatal lung and heart injuries,” believing their use to be in keeping with its mission as the state’s only level I trauma center.

Dr. Steven Mitchell, Medical Director of Emergency Services at Harborview, was quoted as saying that the “technology is really encouraging.”

The Times reported that 28 patients have been treated using ECMO at Harborview and that 60 percent of those patients survived.

While not a miracle cure for every devastating illness or injury, the pump has been a literal lifesaver for a number of patients, including the young woman from Vashon.

Dr. Eileen Bulger, a UW Medicine physician who runs Harborview’s trauma unit, said that she doesn’t think the woman would have survived had it not been for the ECMO.

Bulger further credited the Coast Guard crew — who were so surprised and happy to hear that the young woman had survived and was going to be ok, that they went to visit her at the hospital. She also commended the medics, who continued performing CPR long after some others might have stopped.

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