Background Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) has been used successfully for early, severe reperfusion injury after lung transplantation. The purposes of this study are to: (1) document the medium-term survival of patients treated with ECMO; and (2) assess the extent of recovery of their pulmonary function. Methods We retrospectively reviewed charts of 172 patients having lung transplants at our institution from 1997 through 2002. The group included 16 patients (9% of total; 10 bilateral, 5 single, 1 living lobar) treated with ECMO for primary allograft failure after single or bilateral single-lung transplantation. Survival and bronchiolitis obliterans syndrome (BOS)-free survival rates were calculated. Pulmonary function was assessed at 2 months, 1 year and 2 years post-transplant. Results Median hospital stay was 48 days for the ECMO group and 16 days for the overall group (p < 0.05). The 90-day survival was 60% in the ECMO group, and 90% in the overall group. The 2-year survival was 46% in the ECMO group, and 69% in the overall group. Mean forced expiratory volume in 1 second (FEV1) in the ECMO group at 1 year was 59 ± 13% of predicted, and at 2 years 60 ± 15% of predicted; it was not significantly different for the overall group. Conclusions Patients treated with ECMO for primary allograft failure after lung transplantation showed acceptable medium-term survival and pulmonary function.