5/01/18

Volunteers make ‘reality’ of hospital easier for kids

Since seventh grade, Madeline Link has wanted to help people. A focus on genetics in high school sparked her interest, but today she prefers hands-on to research and aspires to be a surgeon.

“I like knowing I’m fixing them with my own hands, and I can immediately see results,” she said.

A flyer on the University of Illinois campus asking for volunteers for virtual reality therapy at Carle Foundation Hospital caught her eye. She grabbed her chance to help.

Link now leads college students trained to help kids cope with mental and physical challenges through the use of virtual reality.

Parents can request virtual reality through Child Life for pediatric patients. Volunteers explain what’s happening and what kids can expect. They select age-appropriate games and activities, set up the equipment and interact.

Her first patient was in a wheelchair and nervous about their ability to stand. But their confidence grew with her guidance.

“They had a burst of energy,” she said, “and nurses had to make them stop for dinner.”

Deanna Davis, Child Life specialist, said virtual reality promotes healing by getting patients moving.

“You can feel like you are climbing on a mountain or exploring the top of a building,” Link said.

The virtual reality system uses simple hand controls and a headpiece so kids can see and interact with scenes that feel real.

Davis said the opportunities are endless whether for entertainment or therapy.

“They can watch a short interactive film, play Fruit Ninja or just relax,” she said.

The software is exhilarating and proven to regain motor skills or overcome fears.

“It’s an excellent complement to any medical therapy,” said, Davis, adding she sees kids relax and forget or just a bit that they are in the hospital.

Joy and relief. Two emotions that spur Link to volunteer amid a busy personal schedule. The University of Illinois sophomore from Lincoln Park commits her time as president of the campus volunteer organization and tasks herself with training others. Working with Child Life at Carle, nine students stand ready to assist.

 “We always let them know how we can help,” Link said.