Outfitted with a headset and controller, 12-year-old Tommy Peachock sat cross-legged on his hospital bed and floated through a bright, blue sea. His head swiveled side to side, up and down, as he watched whales and dolphins swim up to him.
It was Tommy’s first experience with virtual reality (VR), a technology that’s finding new and varied uses in medical settings.
Akron Children’s Hospital landed 6 units in August from KindVR, a California company. KindVR works with a number of hospitals researching various medical uses of VR. The goal is to help distract and calm young patients who are in pain or facing medical procedures.
Research has shown that VR distraction is effective at reducing pain. More studies are underway to see if VR is valuable in different hospital settings like emergency rooms and before surgery.
Tommy is a leukemia patient of the Showers Family Center for Childhood Cancer and Blood Disorders. He was hospitalized recently after spiking a fever. His family is from Hubbard in Trumbull County.
Tommy was dressed and ready to go home on this morning.
With his mother Sharon watching, hospital volunteer Jessica Benson slipped an Android phone into the headset, showed Tommy the controller and started the KindVR Aqua program.
With his controller, Tommy blew virtual bubbles at sea creatures and objects, which turned them into rainbow colors. Tommy was absorbed in the 15-minute underwater journey.
About halfway through, he broke silence. “There’s a seal in front of me,” he called out.
Acquiring VR units was Jessica’s idea. A former substitute schoolteacher, she is enthusiastic about VR, pointing out that it helps reduce pain and thus reliance painkillers. She spreads the virtues of VR every chance she gets.
Married to Dr. Gregory Benson, medical director of outpatient surgery, Jessica began thinking about VR years ago when her mother was in a nursing home.
“What VR does is it changes the state of mind you are in,” she said. “Many of the nursing home patients would never go on a big trip again, they’d never go to Hawaii. But I thought we could bring Hawaii to them.”
She pitched the idea to Wendy Sawyer of Volunteer Services, and they received a $26,000 grant from the charity group Child’s Play. Jessica researched VR in children’s hospital settings and recommended KindVR, which was founded in 2014 by Simon Robertson, a game developer and child life volunteer at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland.
The units come with cleaning packets, hairnets and disposable face pads, for infection control.
“We try it as a distraction for pain,” said child life specialist Brenda Powell. “I’ve also used it before procedures to help get kids relaxed so they’re not as anxious. It’s a great tool.”
Jessica believes this is just the beginning. Other areas where VR might be useful include wound care, catheter insertions and chest port procedures. The KindVR program includes a virtual MRI to prepare kids for the imaging test.
“Remember Julie McCoy from The Love Boat? This was the girl who created all the experiences. She got everybody to go where they wanted to be going. So that’s what I want to be at Akron Children’s Hospital,” Jessica said.
“My big goal is to get a family together, everyone with head gear, and say on the count of 3 we’re all going to jump onto It’s a Small World at Disney World. I would push the button and they all are side by side on a boat, starting their journey at exact same moment, having the experience at the same time.”
One day last fall, Jessica was cleaning a headset at the main lobby desk when a woman came by and asked if her daughter, who was in the hospital, could try it out.
Jessica obliged and brought the unit to the teen’s room. The girl sat up in bed and dove into KindVR Aqua. She couldn’t stop talking about it afterward, Jessica said.
“Mom started to cry because her daughter was smiling. She hadn’t smiled in a long time,” she said.