The University of Michigan experience with extracorporeal life support (ECLS) in 1000 consecutive patients between 1980 and 1998 is the largest series at one institution in the world. Among this patient population, survival to hospital discharge in moribund patients with respiratory failure was 88% in 586 neonates, 70% in 132 children, and 56% in 146 adults. Survival in moribund patients with cardiac failure was 48% in 105 children and 33% in 31 adults. This article describes the University of Michigan's overall ECLS patient experience, the progression of ECLS from laboratory experiments to clinical application at the bedside, the expansion of the technology to other centers, and current ECLS technology and outcomes. Despite the challenges faced in clinical research in this field, our experience and that of others has shown that ECLS saves lives of patients with acute cardiac or pulmonary failure in a variety of clinical settings.