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How Virtual Reality Googles are Turning Fear into Fun for Young Patients

Tuesday, May 28, 2019 2:52 PM

Everyone can relate to being afraid of needles and hospitals. Understandably, the countdown to orthopaedic surgery for 10-year-old Julia Hollenbeck of Evanston created scary thoughts and anxiety. Julia underwent the preventive procedure last January to correct an abnormal curvature in her lower legs, which turned her knees inward and could eventually lead to pain and difficulty walking.

Virtual Reality Pediatrics

“VR can change the hospital experience from really scary to fun and exciting,” explained Katelyn Beyer, NorthShore Child Life Services Coordinator. “Part of our job is to decrease the negative effects that hospitalization can have on kids.”

Designed for children ages 5 and up, pediatric patients put on the VR headset and choose from more than 25 immersive experiences, including hang gliding, walking through London and playing games. They literally see nothing else until their procedure is completed.

Julia initially chose a game in which she was a penguin, sliding and playing on ice. But she said her favorite experience was a bit more daring: immersed underwater in a shark cage, being circled by the predators.

“I like sharks!” Julia said, laughing.

Less Stress=Better Outcomes
“VR has been a wonderful addition to our ability to help kids like Julia become more comfortable with the surgical experience,” noted Anesthesiologist Dr. Luke Janik, MD, who holds an academic appointment at the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine. “More importantly, VR also allows us to reduce the amount of sedating medication we need to give kids. Anytime we can cut back on the amount of medicine that children need, it’s a good thing.”

Julia’s parents were as happy with the VR experience as their daughter. “It’s one of the finest uses of technology that we’ve ever seen, and we’re really happy that NorthShore is tapping into it this way,” added mom Amy Hollenbeck.

As for Julia’s prognosis, she will undergo a second surgery in less than two years to ensure normal lower leg alignment. And this youngster is completely unfazed by the prospect of returning to the operating room. “The goggles make it fun!”