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Dr. Andrew W. Phillips and the Pioneering ECMO Program at DHR Health

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A Year of Lifesaving Triumphs

In a year marked by significant medical advancements within the Rio Grande Valley, DHR Health’s celebration of the first anniversary of its Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) program stands out as state-of-the-art innovation and hope. Under Dr. Andrew W. Phillips, MD, MEd, FAAEM, ECMO, the ECMO medical director’s pioneering leadership, this program has dramatically transformed the landscape of critical care, offering advanced lifesaving interventions to patients facing the direst of circumstances.

The event, led by Marissa Castañeda, Senior Executive Vice-President for DHR Health, reflected the program’s success and exemplified the spirit of collaboration that brought it to fruition.

Dr. Manish Singh, Chief Executive Officer of DHR Health, further highlighted the program’s impact, calling ECMO “the last light of hope” for critically ill patients. Reflecting on the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Singh reminded attendees of the program’s crucial role in providing advanced medical care locally, thereby preventing the heart-wrenching need to transfer patients away from their families.

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The anniversary celebration honored vital individuals instrumental in the program’s development, notably Dr. Phillip Mason, a critical care physician and professor from San Antonio, Bernadette Elliot, RN, ECMO Program Development Manager also of San Antonio. Their mentorship was pivotal in shaping the program’s direction and ensuring its ongoing success.

The ECMO medical director, Dr. Phillips, has been at the heart of this innovation journey. A native son of the Rio Grande Valley, Dr. Phillips’ dedication to building a comprehensive healthcare program from the ground up has directly addressed the local community’s needs and bridged a significant gap in critical care services.

DHR Health celebrated the 1st Anniversary of its Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) program lead by Dr. Andrew Phillips, medical director. Photo by Roberto H. Gonzalez

Under Dr. Phillips’ leadership, the ECMO medical director at DHR Health, healthcare has made a revolutionary stride. His selection as the March/May 2024 Mega Doctor front cover for Mega Doctor News, a local medical bilingual publication in South Texas, is the importance of his pioneering spirit and the impact of the ECMO program he directs.

Dr. Phillips’ commitment to the Valley’s health and well-being shines through his explanation of the dire need for ECMO services before the program’s establishment. The disparity was stark: With a population of 1.4 million, the Valley had no ECMO centers compared to San Antonio’s three for its 2.6 million inhabitants. Dr. Phillips recalls a distressing example that made national headlines: a desperate plea on Twitter for ECMO treatment for a loved one, which only materialized through high-level intervention.

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Thanks to Dr. Phillips and his team’s efforts, the narrative has dramatically shifted since February 2023. DHR Health now boasts an in-house ECMO specialist and 24/7 physician consultations, ensuring the Valley’s residents have immediate access to this critical service. This achievement marks a significant milestone in leveling the community’s healthcare field.

Dr. Phillips explains the intricacies of ECMO, distinguishing between veno-venous (VV) ECMO for severe lung issues and veno-arterial (VA) ECMO for patients with heart and lung failure. His detailed explanation highlights the complexity and the groundbreaking nature of offering such advanced treatment locally.

Moreover, Dr. Phillips highlights the multifaceted approach required to establish a comprehensive ECMO program. It’s not merely about having the equipment and technology but encompasses a coordinated effort by a multidisciplinary team, including critical care, cardiology, cardiothoracic surgery, and many others. This spirit of collaboration extends to the entire DHR staff, elevating the level of care across all services by integrating ECMO support.

Dr. Phillips’ passion for ECMO is palpable as he describes the technology’s ability to “flip physiology backward,” challenging and expanding the medical team’s understanding of patient care. His reflection on the program’s success is humble yet proud, emphasizing the improvement in survival rates for patients undergoing ECMO and the broader implications for the community’s health services.

Introducing the ECMO program to the Rio Grande Valley is more than a medical achievement; it represents the “last hope,” as Dr. Singh said, for critically ill patients who previously faced insurmountable obstacles to receiving care. Under Dr. Phillips’s leadership, DHR Health has bridged a significant healthcare gap and set a new standard for medical innovation and comprehensive care in the region.

As Dr. Phillips continues to lead and expand the ECMO program, his vision for accessible, advanced healthcare in the Rio Grande Valley is a reality. This ensures that the community he serves has the best possible chance at life-saving treatment. His work exemplifies the essence of medical dedication and innovation. His feature on Mega Doctor News is a fitting recognition of his and his team’s life-changing contributions to healthcare in South Texas.

Dr. Andrew Phillips, a Mission native, returned to the Rio Grande Valley in 2021 to start the ECMO program, which launched in February 2023. He serves as the medical director of DHR Health’s ECMO program. Photo by Roberto H. Gonzalez

The journey to establishing a comprehensive ECMO program at DHR Health has been marked by dedication, innovation, and the indispensable contributions of key figures whose expertise and passion have laid the groundwork for this lifesaving initiative. Dr. Phillips emphasized the central roles played by two exemplary educators, Dr. Phillip Mason and Ms. Bernadette Elliot, RN, in preparing the team for the challenges and triumphs of delivering ECMO services in the Rio Grande Valley.

With the closest adult ECMO center previously located approximately 250 miles away in San Antonio, the introduction of ECMO services at DHR Health represented a leap toward medical autonomy and enhanced care for the local population. Dr. Mason, with his extensive experience in managing ECMO transportation and as a medical director in San Antonio, alongside Ms. Elliot, a seasoned ECMO specialist known for her remarkable ability to navigate complex patient transfers, was instrumental in this transition. Their dedication to educating and mentoring the ECMO team at DHR Health through over a hundred hours of specialized training exemplifies the commitment to excellence that defines the program.

Dr. Mason’s reflections on his initial involvement with DHR Health, from conducting the first ECMO courses to witnessing the program’s successful implementation, underscore the significant barriers that were overcome. His optimism about the program’s future, grounded in the strong leadership and passion within DHR Health, highlights the remarkable progress made within just a year. Dr. Mason’s stories of resilience, from patients who have thrived post-ECMO to their impact on families and communities, are an emotional reminder of the program’s profound significance.

Sustaining and advancing an ECMO program involves manifold clinical, administrative, and logistical challenges. However, Dr. Mason aptly noted that the team’s growing expertise and resilience match the evolving challenges. The central focus on patient care, the connection to their families, and the community impact provide a compelling motivation that propels the team forward.

Dr. Mason’s anecdotes of ECMO patients who have overcome severe illnesses to celebrate milestones reveal the human aspect of the program’s success. These stories illustrate the potential for remarkable recoveries and reinforce the sense of purpose and community that the ECMO team at DHR Health fosters.

As DHR Health continues to build its “family of survivors,” the stories of patients who have beaten the odds prove its impact. The dedication of Dr. Phillips, and the entire ECMO team at DHR Health ensures that the program stands as a medical innovation and a source of hope and healing for the Rio Grande Valley. This effort, rooted in education, innovation, and compassion, sets a strong foundation for addressing future challenges and expanding the reach of lifesaving ECMO services.

Bernadette Elliot, RN, took the stage to express her enthusiasm and gratitude, reflecting on the journey that brought them to this moment: “It’s heartening to see so many specialists gathered here today. As Dr. Mason highlighted, my first visit was foundational, focusing on education to build this program. Dr. Phillips recognized the monumental task ahead and meticulously prepared his team, ensuring they were well-supported.

I applaud DHR Health’s commitment to education, mentorship, and team collaboration. Highlighting the diverse departments and teams involved shows your comprehensive approach to bringing ECMO services to your community. As Dr. Mason pointed out, this is crucial given the extended duration of support some patients require. Providing this service locally alleviates the strain on patients and their families, who would otherwise face the challenge of seeking care far from home.

Congratulations to everyone at DHR Health on your remarkable achievements. I look forward to continuing to support your program’s growth and evolution. The future is bright, and I’m excited to see where we’ll be in the next decade.”

The event offered a platform for Dr. R. Dewayne Edwards, a trauma surgeon and intensivist, to share touching experiences illustrating the ECMO program’s lifesaving capabilities. One memorable story involved the program’s first trauma patient, a man with severe bilateral rib fractures and lung contusions whose prognosis was grim. The decision to utilize ECMO, facilitated by Dr. Phillips, allowed the patient’s lungs to rest and heal, ultimately saving his life against overwhelming odds.

This narrative highlights the ECMO program’s vital role in trauma care, further highlighted by DHR Health’s status as a Level I Trauma Center. “ECMO is very necessary to a Level 1 Trauma Center,” explained Dr. Jeffrey Skubic, DHR Health Level 1 Trauma Director, emphasizing the technology’s indispensability in the most critical cases.

Patient– Jose E. Altamirano Brown speaks:

After receiving support from the ECMO program for over a month, Jose E. Altamirano Brown cherishes moments with his wife, April, and their 6-month-old son. Reflecting on his experience, Jose shared, “I was in a severe ATV accident that left me with devastating injuries, including crushed lungs and a completely fractured rib cage. My situation was dire, and survival seemed out of reach until the ECMO program intervened. The treatment provided me with the vital oxygen my brain needed, enabling a surprisingly quick recovery once I emerged from the state of critical care.

I am profoundly grateful for the tireless effort and dedication of the ECMO team. Their expertise didn’t just save my life; it allowed me to fulfill my dream of fatherhood. Being here for my son and witnessing his growth— none of it would have been possible without the intervention of these remarkable professionals. My family and I owe a debt of gratitude to the team, whose work has allowed me to extend my time with my loved ones far beyond what I imagined was possible. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”

DHR Health’s chairman of the board, Dr. Carlos Cárdenas, took the stage to share some heartfelt closing remarks. “I believe everyone present here has felt the same profound impact that I have, and I can encapsulate that feeling with a single term: ‘Corazon.’ This word encompasses everything. It reflects the genesis of our journey when we started as a humble ambulatory surgical center in 1997. With a vision to introduce equity and bridge the gaps in healthcare services in a region of our state that had previously been overlooked, I feel we have made significant strides. It’s heartening to see our own community members return and initiate programs that fulfill the commitments we made decades ago. The introduction of each program, especially with Dr. Phillips returning to lead, is a testament to our collective effort.”

“Such achievements are not realized in isolation. Our collaborations with partners in San Antonio, the city, the university, and the longstanding healthcare providers in the area have been instrumental in our progress. These partnerships are pivotal as we work together to elevate healthcare standards in our community, keeping our focus on the patient and the community at large. Therefore, the gratitude for today’s milestone, the first anniversary of launching ECMO at DHR Health, extends to everyone here and the broader community for making this vision a reality. My deepest thanks to all of you for being part of this celebration.” Dr. Cárdenas finalized.

As DHR Health’s ECMO program embarks on its second year, Dr. Phillips’ visionary leadership and his team’s dedication continue to inspire hope and advance healthcare in the Rio Grande Valley. This celebration not only marked a year of significant achievements but also set the stage for future innovations in patient care.

The ECMO program’s success story is a compelling reminder of medical innovation, collaboration, and compassion in addressing some of the most challenging health crises. With a firm commitment to providing life-saving interventions and exceptional care, DHR Health is poised to save even more lives, reinforcing its role as a cornerstone of the community’s healthcare system. END

About Dr. Phillips:

Dr. Andrew Phillips, a Mission native, returned to the Rio Grande Valley in 2021 to start the program, which launched in February 2023. He serves as the medical director of DHR Health’s ECMO program.

Dr. Phillips completed medical school at the University of Chicago (Pritzker) and his residency and fellowship at Stanford University and was faculty in the cardiothoracic intensive care unit at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before returning to the Valley.

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