“An option for people who have no other option”

“We got a call in the middle of the night from an outside facility: they had a patient who had failed to come off cardiopulmonary bypass during their heart surgery. This facility didn’t have the support staff in place to be able to manage them, so they called us.”

A relief carved into a building that reads Linda and Jack Gill Heart Institute
Aaron Harris has spent his career at the UK Gill Heart & Vascular Institute.

That was Aaron Harris’s first run as an ECMO Transport nurse at UK HealthCare’s Gill Heart & Vascular Institute, heading out to a distant hospital in the middle of the night to help a patient who wouldn’t otherwise survive. ECMO—extracorporeal membrane oxygenation—is a specialized form of advanced life support that buys time for the sickest of the sick, functioning as an artificial set of heart and lungs.

Aaron Harris sitting at a computer with headphones
Aaron is studying to become a nurse practitioner, specializing in mental health.

ECMO is exceedingly complex and resource-intensive, requiring constant monitoring by a team of highly-trained specialists like Aaron. Due to how much work ECMO requires, the most effective way to offer the therapy is through a single specialized hub that can collect and care for patients in outlying facilities. In Central Kentucky and the surrounding region, that hub is at UK HealthCare.

Aaron Harris adjusting settings on an ECMO system
Patients on ECMO require one-on-one monitoring around the clock.

“ECMO is an option for people who have no other option. A lot of the time, the line you walk with an ECMO patient can be life and death from moment to moment. That’s why we’re here.”

Aaron Harris examining IV bags
“The line you walk with an ECMO patient can be life and death from moment to moment.”

Dedicated, hardworking and passionate, being an ECMO specialist is just part of Aaron’s multi-faceted nursing career. He’s a longtime member of the cardiac ICU staff at Gill, as well as being a superuser for a program piloting the use of aromatherapy for his patients. And on top of all that, he’s a student in UK’s doctoral program for nurse practitioners.

EMCO, a life support system
ECMO is the most advanced life-support available, buying patients valuable time.

“It’s a lot of work,” Aaron acknowledged. “But what’s particularly great about the work here is that the management believes in promoting our people and helping them achieve their goals.”

Oils used for aromatherapy treatment
“I was intrigued by the evidence that's out there that shows that aromatherapy can dramatically benefit patients' experience.”

Aaron’s nursing toolbox includes a wide variety of therapies. Along with several colleagues, he’s piloting the use of aromatherapy to help patients manage pain, nausea and anxiety. He’s worked to implement educational and entertaining content on UK HealthCare’s in-room TV network. Above all, he’s always looking for new ways to better serve his patients.

Aaron Harris holding a plaque for a nursing award
Aaron's work was recognized with the M.J. Dickson Quality Nursing Care Award.

“I love the job that I do because I get to take care some of the sickest patients—not just regionally, but within the nation. I love working with other fantastic nurses to take care of people when they’re not at their best. That’s one of the things nursing is best at, coming alongside people and providing compassionate, quality care and getting them back to what they were doing before.”

Aaron Harris looking at the camera
“It feeds the heart of what it means to be a nurse, to provide compassionate care.”

See how nurses like Aaron care for heart patients at the UK Gill Heart and Vascular Institute.