Addison Gonzalez was doing what children love to do – running and playing with cousins at a family birthday party in Harlingen – when she fell into a toddler-sized hole that opened into a septic tank. Overwhelmed by the hydrogen sulfide fumes, the 18-month-old girl lost consciousness and was inside the tank for several minutes until her family was able to get her out and breathing again. The staff and doctors at Valley Baptist Medical Center put the child on a ventilator, but her lungs were badly damaged. It became apparent that she would not survive without more drastic measures. They transferred her to University Hospital, where the team put Addison on a special machine that provides extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO.
The ECMO machine performed the functions that Addie’s heart and lungs normally did. This gave the organs a chance to rest and heal from the ordeal. ECMO acts as an artificial lung and also can pump the patient’s blood back into their body at the same rate as the heart.
It’s a high-risk procedure used only when a patient’s chances of dying are greater than their chances of survival, said Dr. Veronica Armijo-Garcia, medical director of University Health’s ECMO program. Many child septic-tank injuries end in death, and the ECMO team’s research did not find any cases where ECMO had been used to save someone who had been exposed to hydrogen sulfide fumes. It was unknown territory. But it was their only chance.
Addison stayed on the machine for almost a month. She was monitored 24 hours a day by the ECMO team. It was a long and terrible time for her parents. But in that time, her heart and lungs improved, and after 27 days the ECMO team took her off the machine and put her on a ventilator. Doctors were worried about possible brain damage, but were encouraged when the little girl reached for her father as soon as she began to wake up. As the weeks went by, her feisty personality returned, and they are expecting her to make a full recovery.