For Dr. Jennifer Beckwith, new life-support equipment at Billings Clinic played an important role in her life when she went in for what she thought would be a simple procedure to remove some painful kidney stones.

"I wouldn't have lived without it," she said. "Without these people here and without that machine, I wouldn't be here talking to you today."

That machine is an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation system that serves as a heart-lung bypass, providing critical life support to patients whose heart or lungs aren't working and would otherwise likely die without the help.

"This is as 'life support' as you can get," said Dr. Alexander Kraev, a cardiovascular surgeon who helped bring the technology to the clinic. "It's pretty much ongoing CPR."

Billings Clinic rolled out the new system this year. Beckwith, a family medicine physician at the hospital's Heights clinic, was the first patient to use it at the hospital, spending six days receiving support under 24/7 surveillance.

Earlier this fall, Beckwith developed and began to pass a set of painful kidney stones. But when the stones didn't pass, she went to the hospital's emergency department, thinking she'd undergo a fairly routine procedure to have them removed.

"When they did the procedure, they found a collection of infections on my kidney," Beckwith said.

An abscess on one of her kidneys had turned septic and spread through her body, eventually reaching her lungs. While at the hospital and as a result of the sepsis, her lungs shut down.

With the extracorporeal membrane oxygenation system ready for use and Beckwith's condition quickly worsening, staff connected her to the new machine, housed in a bedside cart about the size of a short filing cabinet.

"It was surreal," said her husband, Jason Beckwith. "Every day she got worse — every day, until they decided to bring in that machine. Once she was on ECMO, I was confident that she'd be OK."

ECMO removes a patient's blood and then passes it through a membrane that adds oxygen while removing carbon dioxide. Then it returns the blood to the body. This process provides fresh oxygen to the body, taking over duties of the heart and lungs.

While similar systems have been used on infants for decades, more widespread use on adults is a fairly new practice in medicine. ECMO is most often used in cases of severe heart or lung failure, such as with Beckwith, or for patients awaiting procedures like heart transplants.

The Billings Clinic Foundation helped pay for the ECMO system, which included bringing in the high-tech equipment and providing training for staff.

Registered nurse and ICU clinician Pam Zinnecker said eight ICU nurses underwent nine months of extensive training, learning the machine's operation in minute detail.

Patients being treated with the ECMO machine have two trained nurses on hand at all times. 

"These are very high-stress cases," Kraev said. "They're very high risk. It takes a lot of bravery from the patients and their families and from the staff. It's not just one person. It really takes a village."

Beckwith spent six days in a coma and attached to the ECMO as it took over for her lungs while they recovered from the sepsis.

What her husband told her when she awoke came as a shock to the patient, also a physician.

"I remember very little, but it was overwhelming to hear what all happened," she said. "With what I know, I didn't believe him when I heard I'd been hooked up with ECMO. I thought I was just going in for a kidney stone procedure."

While Beckwith was the first patient treated with the extracorporeal membrane oxygenation system, it has since been used with a handful of patients.

It has also provided a service that people would've usually traveled to medical facilities in larger cities to use, which often meant a trip with an uncertain outcome.

"Even a couple of years ago, she wouldn't have made it on an airplane," Kraev said. 

After spending another week at the hospital, Beckwith is now focused on her recovery, which is going a bit slower than she'd like. She has less energy than normal, and she'd like to be further along.

Even so, she's thankful that the life-saving care she received was delivered close to home.

"But I'm also home now and alive and with my family," she said. "It was great to have my family here for everything, instead of having to fly out to another city. The people here are amazing. They treated me like their own family."

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