HonorHealth, a leading Valley healthcare system serving 1.6 million people in the greater Phoenix area, announced today the survival of the very first COVID-19 patient in Arizona after being placed on extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) therapy.

The device removes blood from the patient’s body, pumps oxygen into the blood, then pumps it back into the body, helping relieve strain on damaged lungs and hearts, according to doctors. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently issued guidance to help expand the availability of devices to address the novel COVID-19 public health emergency.

Medical directors of the extracorporeal life support program, Robert Riley, MD, chief of cardiothoracic surgery at HonorHealth and part of HonorHealth’s Cardiovascular Center of Excellence, and Anselmo Garcia, MD, a pulmonologist and critical care physician and an independent member of the HonorHealth medical staff, were able to utilize the recommended Extracorporeal Life Support Organization (ELSO) guidelines to develop a personalized treatment protocol of this complex form of life support in order to care for this patient, which ultimately led to a positive outcome.

“The survival of our patient required a tremendous team effort including physicians respiratory therapists, nurses and even housekeeping to address unique ways in which to care for, monitor and sanitize our unit for the best possible care,” said Dr. Riley. “I can’t emphasize enough that this was truly an out-of-the-box approach to care.”

The patient, a 53-year-old male with minimal risk factors, including high blood pressure and pre-diabetes, came into HonorHealth Deer Valley Medical Center after experiencing the typical COVID-19 symptoms including a fever, chills, body aches and nausea for several weeks at home. He had recently traveled overseas to visit family. After two days in the hospital, his health deteriorated rapidly and he was intubated, and transferred to HonorHealth John C. Lincoln Medical Center for increased mechanical ventilation.

The patient was placed on ECMO, where he spent 10 days in a medical-induced coma. On day 11, he woke up, became immediately responsive, and has been FaceTiming with his family while recovering in the ICU.

“This is a novel virus, and we are constantly working together as a team to provide extreme therapy with limited resources,” said Dr. Riley. “Not only are we thankful to see our patient survive, but also to assist by sharing our processes and protocols with our statewide preparedness team, the Maricopa County Department of Public Health and the Arizona Department of Health Services. We hope this will lead to more survivors.”

“We are now being contacted by other prestigious medical centers across the United States, seeking advice on what we have done,” said Dr. Garcia. “Right now, Dr. Riley and I are working with the Maricopa County Department of Public Health and the Arizona Department of Health Services to set up statewide preparedness with the list of processes and protocols that have been developed.”

Currently, this patient is one of the first COVID-19 ECMO survivors in the country documented through the national registry Extracorporeal Life Support Organization (ELSO), an international non-profit consortium of healthcare institutions who are dedicated to the development and evaluation of novel therapies of failing organ systems. The registry currently lists only 10 survivors worldwide.