How a Naperville hospital uses virtual reality to ease pain -- and cure boredom
The arms of Rachael Condon's patient were flailing wildly and nothing seemed to help -- until she strapped on a pair of goggles and went to the beach.
The sand and the waves were only digital, but they seemed to do the trick for the woman who was battling pneumonia and anxiety, said Condon, an Edward Hospital medical oncology nurse.
The woman's involuntary arm movements, once so broad they threatened to hit medical staffers in the face, became slight tremors, and the patient calmed down when she got to use one of the Naperville hospital's six sets of virtual reality goggles for a therapeutic visioning session.
"It's a different approach," Condon said. "It's just a nice thing to have to not go to medicine, and it works -- we've seen it with our own eyes."
The hospital for the past few months has been using three sets of virtual reality goggles with adult patients, mainly people with cancer or those undergoing major surgeries.
Nurses or volunteers help the patient choose an appropriate relaxing experience or visual escape to view and hear for 15 to 30 minutes as a way to reduce pain, decrease reliance on opioids and cure the boredom, anxiety and restlessness that can come from spending time in a hospital.
Patients can visit London, hear the musical sounds of Tibet, sit by a campfire, stop by a seal hospital or tour a shark cove through the goggles from the health care technology platform AppliedVR.
"It shows we're forward-thinking," said Samantha Rodriguez, a nurse educator in medical oncology.
Edward's foray into virtual reality therapy began two years ago with three sets of goggles the hospital received from KindVR through a grant for pediatric use.
Child life specialists such as Kristen Medica use the virtual experiences for soothing, calming and distracting young patients who are in pain from conditions such as sickle-cell anemia, asthma, Crohn's disease, colitis or appendicitis.
One common use occurs when a patient needs to have an IV for the first time, Medica said. Kids might think an IV insertion is just a needle prick, but since the tube stays under the skin, it can give a different, more long-lasting sensation.
So while a young patient is getting an IV, the child life specialist can give him or her a set of KindVR goggles and turn on an underwater seascape.
"It helps them learn to relax and gives them a more soothing environment," Medica said. "It takes their line of vision away from the procedure."
Edward is one of 14 hospitals across the country using KindVR in pediatrics, said Tina Bobo, a pain management nurse who coordinates the virtual reality program.
Grants from Child's Play, a charity that works to improve the lives of hospitalized children through play, and from the financial services company Northwestern Mutual have helped fund subscriptions to the virtual reality technology, which cost roughly $2,500 a year for each pair of goggles, Bobo said.
Now the hospital is hoping to extend the virtual reality programs to more patients, such as kids having surgery or adults receiving chemotherapy infusions.
Chris Kudla of Romeoville is one such cancer patient who gets 45-minute chemotherapy treatments to fight his Stage IV papillary kidney cancer. Kudla, 47, has tried virtual reality therapy with the help of his mother-in-law Barbara McDonnell, a volunteer who administers the treatments.
Kudla said he hopes other chemo patients will be able to experience the relieving escape at their treatment sites.
"When you go in there, it's a grim reminder of your situation and what you're dealing with," he said.
A 30-minute virtual reality trip to the beach or another calming destination can last the majority of a chemo session as a welcome distraction.
"There's so much to take in that it takes your mind off what's going on," Kudla said. "I got to relieve some of that post-treatment stress."
As part of grant specifications, Bobo said, Edward is keeping stats on patients' perception of pain before and after a virtual experience, their use of as-needed pain medication before and after a treatment and their thoughts on whether it helped with their underlying pain or anxiety.
Edward nurses hope the data they gather can inform other hospitals to pursue technology and alternate pain treatments.
"Patients are looking for therapies," Rodriguez said, "to make them feel better."