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How Much is Your Life Worth?

By Daniel Foster27 Nov 2023

It’s a silly question, right?

How much is your life worth. Other than loved ones, there probably isn’t anything you wouldn’t trade to save your life if it was in danger.

So let’s look at it from the opposite end…

How much is someone else’s life worth?

From this angle, the question gets uncomfortable, because the value of a life depends on who’s life, even though we feel like it shouldn’t. If it’s your child, then their life is probably worth more than your own. If it’s a distant relative, then (just being honest) their life is worth a lot, but not as much as your child’s.

If it’s a random person on the street, then the value of their life can vary greatly depending on who’s evaluating it. Some might throw themselves in front of a speeding car to save a random stranger on the sidewalk, but not many would. For most of us, the valuation of a life beyond ourselves, our friends, and our family isn’t something we consciously analyze, because we feel like we shouldn’t have to. We don’t want to.

But health care providers have no choice. They’re forced to face ugly decisions that most of us design our lives and careers to bypass. COVID, and specifically its relationship to ECMO, dragged these decisions to the medical forefront.

During the pandemic, the number of patients who needed ECMO therapy far outstripped the number of ECMO beds in the country. And this was no idle threat, since those who needed ECMO but didn’t receive it died 90% of the time.1

So to decide that a particular patient would not receive ECMO was almost certainly a death sentence.

Some hospitals created age limits, or comorbidity screens. Perhaps, if a person was over 70, they weren’t eligible for ECMO, or if they were over 60 and also had type II diabetes or severe heart disease, they were ruled out.

If you think this sounds terrible to read, imagine how terrible it was for the clinicians with one open ECMO bed and two patients who needed it. They had to decide between them.

ECMO isn’t a recommended therapy; it’s a last resort, because about half the patients that go on ECMO die before they recover. Given those tragic numbers, and the drastic gap between the number of people who need, and number who can be supplied, ECMO can only be used for those who have the greatest chance of survival.

If an otherwise-healthy 28-year-old needs ECMO at the same time that a 75 year old with COPD needs it, then you have to give it to the younger, healthier patient because he has a much better chance of surviving. If you give it to the older, less-healthy patient, then the most likely outcome will be two deaths instead of one.

But as always, these things seem completely reasonable until it’s your life on the line.

We build the ELSA device to try to relieve some of the pressure of these decisions. ELSA trends recirculation, which, in short, helps clinicians save more lives by keeping track of the patient’s heart condition while on ECMO.

It may sound like a drop in the bucket, but it’s how medical progress is made. We can help clinicians tilt ECMO’s 50% death statistic in favor of life. So we do it. We do it as pervasively and as frequently as we can.

How much is your life worth?

It’s worth enough that we’ll take every inch, every idea, every extra minute of life we can get. Because that’s how we beat these horrible stats. That’s how humanity beat the Spanish flu a hundred years ago, and Black Plague centuries before that: we weathered the storm and kept building our knowledge base until today’s terrifying Armageddon became history’s numbed memory.

Medical progress hurts, and it’s terribly costly. It takes a long time, and clinicians have to make hard decisions in the meantime. But that’s what they do—daily, if they have to.

Because that’s what your life—what everyone’s life—is worth.

Thanks for reading,

                Transonic Systems, Inc.

                        The Measure of Better Results


  1. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/health/2022/03/01/covid-study-lack-ecmo-led-young-patients-dying-us-hospitals/9328660002/