Virtual Reality Helps Kids Cope

Categories: Donor Story, Medical Center News, Partners in Caring
Connecticut Children’s child life specialist Lauren Smizer shows Ada how to use the VR equipment, which was made possible by a donor gift.

When Ada Wilson undergoes hospitalization or lengthy follow-up visits at Connecticut Children’s, she can escape for a while into virtual reality with games like “Pebbles the Penguin,” “Asteroid Miner” and “Mindfulness Meditation.” Thanks to a generous donor gift, virtual reality (VR) is now a new reality at Connecticut Children’s that will help kids cope with pain or provide a distraction for those undergoing certain medical procedures.

A Great Escape

Ada, the 15-year-old daughter of Julie and Markes Wilson of Windsor, has been hospitalized numerous times since 2015 for complications related to cystic fibrosis—a progressive, hereditary disease that causes persistent lung infections—and has found virtual reality games to be a great way to take her mind off blood draws and other exams—and hospitalization overall.

“I’ve tried a lot of distractions for procedures, but these are really good,” said Ada, watching a game of “Pebbles the Penguin” unfold through a VR headset. “These goggles are super-easy to use. You can choose longer, lively games or shorter games. For a procedure, it can be very helpful.”

“She uses it while she’s here on precautions,” her mother, Julie, said. “It helps her feel like she’s somewhere else.”

Ada, who underwent a resection of her lower right lung in October 2015 and may eventually undergo a double-lung transplant, was introduced to the VR software earlier this year by Lauren Smizer, a child life specialist at Connecticut Children’s.

“Ada got so comfortable with the goggles, she decided to use them for distraction,” said Lauren, who met Ada during one of her admissions in February 2017. “VR is huge in children’s hospitals right now,” she added. “Sometimes patients just feel like they need to escape the room. VR is another tool in our toolbox for helping kids cope.”

Ada, who has been hospitalized numerous times since 2015, has found VR games to be a great way to take her mind off procedures, in general, and hospitalization overall.

Donor Gift Makes Virtual Reality Possible

Indeed, no one enjoys being stuck with a needle, let alone having someone set a broken arm or touch a serious laceration. But thanks to a generous gift from Paula Sisti and her children, Connecticut Children’s can now offer patients, like Ada, an option to make all of those discomforts easier and provide a distraction to look forward to.

“It’s exciting to see VR being used by children across the hospital for managing pain and to distract them in times of high stress,” said William Zempsky, MD, Division Head of Pain & Palliative Care at Connecticut Children’s. “So far, hundreds of kids have used the goggles to ease their pain, relax before a procedure or be distracted during a procedure. We currently have 10 headsets and are planning to add a number of cardboard goggles that would let us reach many more kids.”

The VR equipment, bought with the Sisti family’s support, consists of a set of goggles, a smartphone-like device that holds the software and has a screen on which a game plays, and a hand-held controller. The goggles render the image in 3D, and the software itself is designed to place the child in another world that can be explored by turning the head or eyes.

Virtual Reality in Action

Child life specialists at Connecticut Children’s, who administer the VR program, use a meditation app that helps address a child’s anxiety. Once the child puts the goggles on, he finds himself on a mountaintop with a nearby waterfall and a field of flowers and butterflies. The child can look up and see the sky or down at the flowers or turn his head to see what’s behind him. In conventional games and in movies, the viewer stays motionless and the scene moves, but in VR, it’s the opposite: The patient moves and the world stays in place, just as it does in the real world. That’s what makes VR so immersive and compelling. And it’s why it is so effective in distracting a child.

“Soon, we’ll be using VR as part of a biofeedback program that will help young people with chronic pain,” Dr. Zempsky said. “For example, kids with chronic headache will have sensors on their scalp and using the VR goggles, they will learn how to relax certain muscles to reduce pain.”

“The Sistis’ donation was essential to getting this program going,” Dr. Zempsky noted. “We wouldn’t be where we are without them.”

The VR technology was a gift from Paula Sisti and her children, who are pictured here with Dr. William Zempsky, Division Head of Pain & Palliative Care at Connecticut Children’s. From left are Paula’s son, Kevin; Dr. Zempsky; Paula; and her daughters, Abigail Sisti and Kristina Wilson. (Not pictured: Samantha Sisti)

The Gift that Keeps on Giving

The Sistis—Paula and her children, Kevin, Abigail, Kristina and Samantha—made their gift to establish a virtual reality program at Connecticut Children’s in memory of Paula’s husband, Kevin, who passed away in 2016. Her son, Kevin, had a business interest in film and had experienced what VR could do, so when his father became sick, he wanted to use it.

“My husband had been diagnosed terminally ill with cancer,” Paula said, “and my son thought it would be really exciting for my husband to be able to go on a safari, which he wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. So, Kevin was able to bring him to a safari through virtual reality. The pleasure watching my husband’s face was incredible. The helplessness that you feel when your loved one is in pain is so overwhelming, and to be able to witness that, well, I have no words; I just couldn’t believe it. My mother was ill at the same time, and my son brought the goggles over to my mom’s house, and virtually brought her home back in Sicily, to the church where she was married, to the street she was born on, right to the door.”

Making Kids Smile is Our Reality

Seeing how much VR helped their family, the Sistis wanted to share its benefits with children. “We want to give the kids something else to focus on,” Abigail said. “If we get even one smile, it will be worth it.”

For the Wilson family, having VR technology available for Ada and other pediatric patients who will benefit from its use is just one more reason why Connecticut Children’s is the right place for their children’s care. “We spend a lot of time here, and they do a fabulous job of making it just like home,” Ada’s mother said.

If you would like to put your gift to work immediately in support of the Virtual Reality program at Connecticut Children’s, please click here to Make a Gift and enter “Virtual Reality” as your gift designation.