Virtual reality lets kids set aside sickness, seriousness

12-year-old Karson Richardson test drives virtual reality system at hospitalWhen Karson Richardson is in a serious mood, he focuses on whatever sport he’s in at the time or prepping for his bright future as an archaeologist.

When things are less serious, he might take a shower in grape juice.

Virtual grape juice, that is.

While on Carle’s Pediatrics floor last month, Karson, 12, forgot about his high fever for a while as he helped test drive a virtual reality system Jonathan Thomas-Stagg brings monthly to the floor. Thomas-Stagg and his University of Illinois colleagues work with children who cope with mental and physical challenges, and he wanted to see if virtual reality could help them and others.

“This has added an amazing and unexpected dimension of caring for our young patients,” said Bridget Ruholl, MS, CCLS, one of Carle’s five Child Life specialists.

“We’re so grateful Jonathan wanted to work with us to help our kids.”

Child Life Services continually seeks new ways to connect with children and teens to make their hospital stays more comfortable so they can feel better faster. The virtual reality system uses simple hand controls and a headpiece so kids can see and interact with fictional scenes that feel really real.

“You have to experience it to understand it,” Thomas-Stagg said. “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”

Thomas-Stagg tells young Carle patients to simply close their eyes, though, if the experience becomes too much.

Jonathan Thomas-Stagg demonstrates the virtual reality system he brings monthly Carle hospitalKarson didn’t close his eyes for a moment. He was a virtual reality natural despite dealing with Kawasaki disease, a condition marked by high fevers that, typically and thankfully, goes away.

And, no, showering in grape juice wasn’t a way to quell his fever. It was just one of the creative ways Karson chose to interact with a mock convenience store—and spotlight his less-serious side.

Karson’s mom, Katie, knew her son was feeling better when his sillies came back.

“Before that, his face was on fire. His temp was up to 104.6, and we just couldn’t get it down. He didn’t eat for several days,” she said.

“For us it was one step at a time, but the virtual reality experience made his day.”

Ruholl is eager for other patients to experience the sillier side of virtual reality—like getting mock cars fixed at mock car shops, hurling staplers in a mock office setting and riding on a mock triceratops or other dinosaur favorite.

Those who do will, like Karson and Thomas-Stagg, get familiar with taking a break by choosing “the exit burrito” when they need to stop to get an EKG, a blood draw or some rest.