WVU Heart and Vascular Institute uses ECMO to save a young man’s life

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Nathan Ferguson, 23, of Bluefield, had never been seriously ill before and did not suspect anything serious when he developed a sore throat and cough, which left him on a couch at the oil rig in St. Clairsville, Ohio, where he worked.

(Left to right) Jeremiah Hayanga, M.D., M.P.H., and Nathan Ferguson

Shortly after Ferguson texted his mom, Elaine, that he could not stop coughing, his coworkers returned from a safety meeting to find him unresponsive.

“One of the guys called 911, but the volunteer fire department couldn’t find our rig because we were so far away from a main road,” Ferguson said. “They decided they couldn’t wait for an ambulance and put me in a truck to take me to the hospital. They drove through the gate because they knew things were serious.”

When Ferguson arrived at Wheeling Hospital on Jan. 19, he was diagnosed with pneumonia and a form of strep that had caused his oxygen level to become dangerously low. Doctors were unable to increase it to more than 50 percent.

A member of the medical staff suggested that he might be a candidate for extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, or ECMO, a life support technique used in patients with life-threatening heart or lung problems.

Doctors placed Ferguson on ECMO before transferring him by medical helicopter to the WVU Heart and Vascular Institute for specialized care. Upon arrival, doctors adjusted his ECMO, adding support to his heart and allowing his body and brain to receive more oxygen. He quickly regained consciousness and was able to give his nurses a thumbs up.

“When they told me that Nathan had given a thumbs up, I knew he was going to be OK,” Elaine Ferguson said. “That’s just how Nathan is, making sure those around him know that he’s OK.”

Doctors at the WVU Heart and Vascular Institute, including Jeremiah Hayanga, M.D., M.P.H., director of the WVU Medicine ECMO program, worked to treat Ferguson’s pneumonia and strep infection with antibiotics, making his condition improve rapidly.

“It was incredible how quickly he improved,” Dr. Hayanga said. “We were able to have him out of bed and walking while he was still on ECMO. Most patients need to be on ECMO for about two weeks, but Nathan was only on it for five days.”

Ferguson was in the hospital for a total of eight days before going home. He is now able to perform normal activities and return to work.

“I’m just grateful we have this kind of technology here at WVU Medicine,” Ferguson said. “If I had been somewhere farther away, I wouldn’t have made it. Everyone took such good care of me, and I wouldn’t be here without them.”

Ferguson’s survival was due to the efforts of many people, including his coworkers on the oilrig and the clinical staff at Wheeling Hospital.

“Cases like this show that our outreach efforts are working,” Hayanga said. “The staff at Wheeling Hospital were able to identify that Nathan was a candidate for ECMO, and they knew that the program was available here.”

The ECMO program at WVU Medicine began in 2018. It is designated a Center of Excellence by the Extracorporeal Life Support Organization. The procedure has helped newborns with meconium aspiration syndrome, people waiting for heart or lung transplants, and patients with certain cardiac problems.

For more information on the WVU Heart and Vascular Institute, visit www.wvumedicine.org/heart.