ECMO Survivors: Chelsea's Story

July 15, 2015

Chelsea Vargas was born at a local Chicago hospital in 1994, where she was quickly diagnosed with meconium aspiration syndrome. Meconium aspiration happens when a newborn infant breathes in a mixture of meconium and amniotic fluid (the fluid in which the baby floats inside the mother). Doctors soon decided her case was serious enough to need a form of life support called extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO). ECMO is a life-support machine for patients with severe lung or heart issues. It is a form of cardiopulmonary bypass in which an artificial heart and lung machine temporarily takes over to supply blood to the child’s body. Chelsea was soon airlifted to Children’s Memorial Hospital, now known as Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago.

The machine that Chelsea had been on that was helping her breathe couldn’t fit in the helicopter on the way to Children’s Memorial, so the Transport Team had been using oxygen to keep her alive. They were in the air longer than anticipated and ran out of oxygen. Chelsea stopped breathing on the way, but our Transport Team immediately started CPR.

The moment they arrived at Children’s Memorial, Chelsea was put on ECMO and was cared for by the team in the Division of General Pediatric Surgery, led by Dr. Marleta Reynolds. She was on ECMO for 30 days, which is the longest amount of time anyone is allowed to be on the machine. After she was taken off ECMO, she began the long process of recovery and follow-up appointments, including a great deal of physical therapy to build up the muscles she wasn’t developing while on the machine.

After years of annual check-ups with Dr. Reynolds, the one she still comes back to the hospital for is the annual ECMO Reunion. “It’s good to see that ECMO is still helping people, and I like to see the little kids and other families who have recently come off it. I think seeing people like me gives them hope that their kids will grow up and have good lives too,” Chelsea says.

Today Chelsea is a healthy 21-year-old college student majoring in integrative biology and Spanish. After she graduates, she hopes to go to medical school and specialize in cardiology. She credits her time with our doctors as a motivating factor behind her dream to go to med school.