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What Is a Ventilator?

Ventilator, breathing machine, ventilated support, respirator, mechanical support, mechanical ventilator. It’s called many things but what is it and why is it so important for critically ill or injured patients?

What Is a Ventilator and What Does It Do?

A ventilator is machine that helps patients breathe when they are not able to do so on their own or when their lungs are not getting enough oxygen into their blood. Ventilators are mainly used in hospitals or in medical transport systems such as ambulances.

When a patient is put on a ventilator they are intubated. This means a tube is inserted into their throat or directly into their windpipe (you’ve probably seen this on medical tv shows). The other end of the tube is connected to the ventilator, which pumps oxygen into the patient’s lungs and helps to inflate them. The ventilator might also breathe out for the patient if they are not able to do so on their own.

When Are Ventilators Used?

We breathe oxygen from the air into our lungs, oxygen must pass from our lungs into the blood for our tissues and organs to work properly. A person would be put on a ventilator if their lungs are not getting enough oxygen into the blood, this is also known as respiratory failure. This could be because the person is not able to breathe on their own or because the lungs are not working well enough to properly oxygenate the blood. In either case, a ventilator is used to get oxygen into the lungs.

Ventilators and Organ Donation

When a person has a severe brain injury, or certain severe chronic illnesses, they may be completely unable to breathe on their own, or unable to breathe well enough to provide adequate oxygen to their bodies. A ventilator is required to help the person breathe and supply adequate oxygen, so that organs and tissues do not become damaged. 

Some brain injuries can be so severe that they lead to all brain functions stopping. This is called brain death. With brain death, a ventilator is required to do 100% of the work for a person’s lungs. 

This creates the unique situation when organ donation is possible. The person has passed away but because the ventilator is breathing for them, their organs are still receiving oxygen. For organ donation to happen, a person must stay on the ventilator up until the time the organs are being recovered to continue providing that oxygen.

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