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To present a series of 30 adult trauma patients who received extracorporeal life support (ECLS) for pulmonary failure and to retrospectively review variables related to their outcome.In a Level I trauma center between 1989 and 1997, ECLS with continuous heparin anticoagulation was instituted in 30 injured patients older than 15 years. Indication was for an estimated mortality risk greater than 80%, defined by a PaO (2): FIO2 ratio less than 100 on 100% FIO2, despite pressure-mode inverse ratio ventilation, optimal positive end-expiratory pressure, reasonable diuresis, transfusion, and prone positioning. Retrospective analysis included demographic information (age, gender, Injury Severity Score, injury mechanism), pulmonary physiologic and gas-exchange values (pre-ECLS ventilator days [VENT days], PaO2:FIO2 ratio, mixed venous oxygen saturation [SVO2], and blood gas), pre-ECLS cardiopulmonary resuscitation, complications of ECLS (bleeding, circuit problems, leukopenia, infection, pneumothorax, acute renal failure, and pressors on ECLS), and survival.The subjects were 26.3 +/- 2.1 years old (range, 15-59 years), 50% male, and had blunt injury in 83.3%. Pulmonary recovery sufficient to wean the patient from ECLS occurred in 17 patients (56.7%), and 50% survived to discharge. Fewer VENT days and more normal SVO2 were associated with survival. The presence of acute renal failure and the need for venoarterial support (venoarterial bypass) were more common in the patients who died. Bleeding complications (requiring intervention or additional transfusion) occurred in 58.6% of patients and were not associated with mortality. Early use of ECLS (VENT days 2:FIO2 ratio were not related to outcome.ECLS has been safely used in adult trauma patients with multiple injuries and severe pulmonary failure. In our series, early implementation of ECLS was associated with improved survival. Although this may represent selection bias for less intractable forms of acute respiratory distress syndrome, it is our experience that early institution of ECLS may lead to improved oxygen delivery, diminished ventilator-induced lung injury, and improved survival.