Gillette Children's using Virtual Reality to transport patients out of hospital

From gaming to movies, technology buffs are finding more and more uses for Virtual Reality, or VR.

There is a new use for Virtual Reality, however, that is also changing lives. 

Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare in St. Paul is now using VR with patients. The hospital started with two headsets last summer, but the program was so successful and popular that they now have seven. 

Every other week, for hours at a time, 15-year-old Lauren Vaaler sits in a hospital room at Gillette. 

“They just hook me up to an IV through my port, and they give me some anti-inflammatories that will stop the inflammation in my arms and legs,” Vaaler said. 

The Totino-Grace High School freshman has severe inflammatory neuropathy. Vaaler’s nerve pain and numbness started when she was in 8th grade. 

“I used to play soccer and tennis, but I just noticed that I kept falling, and I used to have these sharp pains in my legs and arms,” Vaaler said. 

The infusions at Gillette are helping, but the hospital visits can last up to four hours. For a once very active teenager, the time passes slowly. 

That’s where Virtual Reality comes in. 

“It's so real,” Vaaler said while traveling through “Iceland” in VR. 

The experience is an escape from treatment and her hospital room. 

“So now I'm in Iceland guys, and it's pretty cool,” Vaaler said. “I'm in a big field and there's a bunch of horses running. And now I'm by hot springs.”

Los Angeles based tech company Applied VR developed the goggles specifically for the hospital. 

“It's just kind of like I'm stuck in a little hospital room but I guess I get to kind of escape,” Vaaler said. 

Young patients can scroll through multiple options, including games, relaxation and meditation exercises. The “Bear Blaster” and “Seal Hospital” are among the children’s favorites. 

“I think I kind of like the view ones, where you can look at different landscapes,” Vaaler said.  

When the program started at Gillette, there were high hopes for both outpatient and inpatient procedures. The outcomes have met and exceeded expectations. 

“We have so many of those great stories where we've avoided general anesthesia, or reduced medications, made the procedure more beneficial, and also been able to reduce side effects associated with some of those medications,” said Dr. Chantel Barney, Gillette Children’s Clinical Scientist and coordinator of the VR program. 

VR is now available to all Gillette patients ages four and up. 

“We make sure that each of our child life specialists has one at all times with them as just another tool in their toolbox,” Barney said. “They have lots of other things like playdough and all kinds of things that keep kids excited, bubbles and iPads, but now they have a Virtual Reality headset as well.”

“It kind of like shifts your focus from what's going on around you, because you can look at a new landscape,” Vaaler said. “It's just really nice to have something like this, to keep you occupied.”

“It's really rewarding actually,” Dr. Barney said. “It almost brings tears to my eyes because it's nice to see when it really does benefit someone.”

Gillette patients are now using VR during blood draws, infusions, wound bandage changes and Botox for cerebral palsy treatment. 

“We've also used it a couple of times in the post-operative environment, so people recovering from surgery, might have a lot of pain or anxiety, and need help calming down,” Barney said. 

The team is now collecting data for research so they can predict which of their patients will get the most out of Virtual Reality. 

“It can just be a really fun escape for kids to have something else to experience,” Barney said. “We definitely use it for that purpose too--just having an enjoyable 20 minutes can really make a difference in someone's day.”