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Virtual reality becoming the new way to treat kids with cancer


Seth Oliva’s favorite virtual reality simulation game takes him through the human body, where microscopic parts like red and white blood cells are so close, it feels like he can touch them.

“They help me to get my mind off of all the things that are happening to me,” says Seth of the virtual reality goggles, which immerse the 8-year-old in a 3D world where he can bowl, tour space or explore the human body.

Seth has T-cell lymphoma, a type of blood cancer that requires him to undergo chemotherapy sometimes three times a week. The second-grader, who attends Virginia A. Boone Highland Oaks Elementary, was diagnosed eight months ago at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Hollywood, where he receives chemotherapy.

DiMaggio and other South Florida hospitals are using the latest in technologies, like virtual reality, live-streaming, and video games, to help kids have some fun before, during or after chemotherapy and other types of cancer treatments.

“There’s fear and anxiety of having to go through the procedure,” says Seth’s father, Miza Oliva. “So for him, it’s an all new experience that moves him beyond what just happened.”

Numerous studies published in The National Center for Biotechnology Information – part of the U.S. National Library of Medicine —show that virtual experiences help reduce anxiety and distract pain in pediatric patients who undergo harrowing medical procedures like stem-cell transplantation, chemotherapy, radiation and surgery.

“You get to go into all the different parts deep inside the body,” says Seth, recounting the Virtual Reality game that explores the human body. “At the beginning, you see blood cells, and then you can see a disease in the body at the very end.”

“And how the cells come to fight it,” his mother Melissa Oliva reminds him. “You look up and you look down or you look to the left or to the right, it’s all around you.”

Renee Jadusingh-Sabillon, a child-life manager at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, says she sees a difference in the mood of the patients after they use sensory devices.

“All of the sensory-specific things and advances in technology have really helped,” she says.

CinemaVision goggles are used with MRI machines, so that patients undergoing a scan can watch movies, TV or listen to music. The goggles help with claustrophobia and stress sometimes associated with MRI treatments.

“They’re fully enthralled with what’s going on through the goggles,” says Jadusingh-Sabillon. “They can forget what’s happening around them.”

Kids can also play virtual soccer or whack-a-mouse via a beam device that projects a picture or game onto the floor. The devices are installed in the hospital’s new Pediatric Care Pavilion, which hosts critical care units such as oncology, hematology and bone – marrow transplant units.

Forty Nintendo Wii devices are being installed inside of patients’ rooms on the pediatric oncology floor, donated by the parents of a former oncology patient. They’re particularly useful for patients whose immune systems are compromised and are restricted to their rooms.

Sensory tubes, also called “bubble tubes,” light up with different colors and sounds and are geared more toward patients who are on the autism spectrum, or who have sensory delays.

At the Miami Cancer Institute at Baptist Health South Florida, rooms are being outfitted to offer an “immersive-healing experience.”

Melodie Ruiz, 12, of Kendall was diagnosed with ALL (Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia) two years ago and is in remission. During her treatments, she saw animals from Zoo Miami and talked with astronauts, both via live-streaming on a huge digital screen in a room dubbed the “Infusionarium.”

As Ruiz and three other patients reclined on big, comfy chairs and ate popcorn, Ron Magill, the communications director for Zoo Miami, entertained them with a Eurasian eagle owl, a rhinoceros iguana and an albino Burmese python — 10 miles away at the zoo.

Then, in May, astronauts and engineers from NASA’s Mars 2020 mission streamed live from the “Mars Yard” in California, where pilots rehearse, drill and learn to drive Rovers on a surface that mimics Mars. (It’s like FaceTime but on a big screen.)

“It’s a really big room with a big TV and it has comfortable chairs,” said Melodie of the Infusionarium, which was developed by a former Disney Imagineer and is designed so that patients can receive chemotherapy infusions while seated comfortably.

“The astronauts showed us how things work with the Rover,” she said, “and they showed us an example of an area that’s kind of like Mars.”

“She was really happy,” said her mother Patricia Ruiz, holding back tears. She and other parents sat with their kids during the presentations, which Ruiz said took her daughter’s mind off of her medical issues.

During Magill’s presentation, patients in three other hospitals — in California, North Carolina and Tampa — tuned in and asked Magill questions.

“When you can inspire wonder and fascination that people have with animals, that is one of the best drugs you have,” Magill said. “Making these kids and their moms smile, and helping them forget what they’re going through, at least for a little while, that’s the best reward you can have.”

Dr. Doured Daghistani, medical director of pediatric oncology at the Miami Cancer Institute, thinks more hospitals should use virtual reality as form of therapy to help patients, particularly during chemo, which can take hours and can be grueling.

“The Infusionarium is really something that is doing magic for these kids because they’re not just going to Dr. D to get chemo,” he said. “They’re going to Dr. D to have some fun playing in the Infusionarium. When you go inside, you feel like you are in a special place – like you’re not in a doctor’s office or in a hospital.”

“Virtual reality helps to distract you from a miserable situation and you feel better – absolutely,” he says.

Community organizations wishing to get involved with live-streaming presentations to help patients in the Infusionarium can contact Marguerite Rowell, assistant vice president of nursing at Miami Cancer Institute, at 786-527-8389.



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