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Hope for ECMO Babies

"Hope" for ECMO Babies

In 1974, a poor young woman in Baja, Mexico, was going into labor with her first pregnancy. Determined that her child would have a better life as a United State citizen she crossed the border to deliver her baby in California. When her water broke and she took the next exit off the freeway, finding herself at the Orange County Medical Center where her daughter was born. The little girl looked perfect, but her lungs were not working. Despite a ventilator turned to high settings the baby's lungs were unable to provide her with enough oxygen. It became increasingly apparent that the infant would not survive.

The neonatologists called Robert Bartlett, a surgeon who had been involved in developing the membrane lung. He explained to the mother that his team proposed to use a specially modified heart-lung machine to provide oxygen to the child to allow her lungs time to recover. The technique had never been used successfully in a newborn, but the baby would certainly die without it. The mother signed with an "X" and then took one long, last look at her daughter and disappeared, perhaps being equally scared of the baby's likely outcome and of her own arrest and deportation. After three days on the membrane lung the child recovered .The nurses named her Esperanza, "hope" in Spanish. She grew up in the loving care of her adoptive family.

Esperanza is now 34 years old, the oldest of the so-called "ECMO Babies" who survived against all odds with the help of Dr. Bartlett. ECMO (which stands for Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation) has saved thousands of lives over the past four decades. During an illustrious career at the University of Michigan, Dr. Bartlett worked unceasingly to perfect the ECMO equipment - devising new artificial organs and improved pumps to make the procedure ever safer for his tiny charges. The University's Pediatric Surgery Section is at the forefront of ECMO intervention nationwide, and owes this distinction to Dr. Bartlett. Now a Professor Emeritus of the Department of Surgery, he directs the University's Life Support Research Laboratory.

To learn more about Dr. Bartlett's work, or to make a gift to support the future of ECMO research, please contact Ann Boyd-Stewart in the Department of Surgery's Office of Development at 734.678.8166 or

Support the Robert Bartlett Professorship in Pediatric Surgery.