'It saved my life': How an artificial lung is being used to treat patients in Bristol

Bethany King was one of the first ECMO patients in Bristol.  Credit: UHBW

Critically ill patients whose lungs have stopped working properly say an artificial lung has saved their lives.

The collaborative service between University Hospitals Bristol and Weston NHS Foundation Trust (UHBW) and North Bristol NHS Trust (NBT) is known as veno-venous ECMO (Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation).

It involves a highly complex procedure to support patients who have a critical respiratory condition that prevents the lungs from functioning normally.  

An artificial lung located outside the body puts oxygen into the blood and returns it to the body, temporarily doing the work of the lungs and giving them time to heal. 

Patients treated by ECMO need the temporary life support system as all other types of breathing support have not worked.  

The ECMO service recently marked its first year in Bristol, located at the Bristol Royal Infirmary (BRI) Intensive Care Unit (ICU).

It is one of only six ECMO centres in England and has treated 16 patients so far, all of which have responded successfully to the treatment. 

The service, which launched in November 2022, was part-funded through a £1.25 million anonymous donation to Southmead Hospital Charity during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Bethany King was one of the first ECMO patients in Bristol. 

Bethany said: “Prior and during most of my experience of having ECMO I was extremely unwell and in an induced coma where doctors said it would be touch and go if I survived. 

“As a healthy 20-year-old, this was information my family never expected to hear. Once the ECMO treatment commenced, I started to make small improvements and was slowly woken up from the coma. 

“At the time, I was so desperate to have the ECMO treatment removed as it was limiting me to my hospital bed, and all I wanted to do was get up and go home. However, upon reflection, ECMO along with the brilliant staff at the ICU, saved my life and without it I likely wouldn’t be here. 

“I will forever be grateful to everyone - there are far too many to name individually - who helped me throughout the whole of my journey and I am so thankful that ECMO was available to me when it.”

Luke McQuillan was put into an induced coma and transferred from Swindon Great Western Hospital for ECMO treatment.  

Luke said: “Thank you for giving me my life back, for giving my children their dad to celebrate Father’s Days, birthdays and Christmas; giving my wife her husband back and giving my parents their son back. 

Luke McQuillan was put into an induced coma and transferred from Swindon Great Western Hospital for ECMO treatment. Credit: UHBW

“It’s very easy to take life for granted but something like this really makes you realise how fickle life is and how you need to treat every moment as a special one because we were so very close to not being able to share those memories and special moments and dull days together.”   

Councillor Paul Goggin, Lord Mayor of Bristol, who was diagnosed with pneumonia in June (2023) which developed into explosive pleurisy (inflammation around the lungs) and later, sepsis, spent three months in the BRI intensive care unit.

He said: “It was a very strange experience coming into the hospital in sunny June and leaving in cold October, having missed five months of my Lord Mayor role – but I am trying to make up for it now! 

“I’ve since seen the ECMO machine – it's the most unassuming piece of equipment that doesn’t really look like a life-saving machine, but it did indeed save my life. Some people call it the ‘miracle machine’ and for me, it really was. A huge thank you to everyone at the BRI for their love and care, I will remember it for the rest of my life.”

Councillor Paul Goggin, Lord Mayor of Bristol, spent three months in the BRI ICU. Credit: UHBW

Dr Sanjoy Shah said: “ECMO is a highly specialist service we are proud to be offering to seriously ill patients across the South West of England here in Bristol. It is a priority for UHBW and NBT to work together to deliver high quality care in Bristol for patients across the region.  

“The Bristol ECMO service marking a year of operation is a significant achievement in collaborative working across UHBW and NBT and I want to thank everyone involved in supporting the service over the past 12 months, including Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, Royal Brompton Hospital, Retrieve Adult Critical Care Transfer service and Southmead Hospital Charity.”