Brody Bowman used to receive the IV medication he needs to treat his hemophilia through a port in his chest.
But when his health-care team recently switched to the 7-year-old’s arms and hands, the needle sticks caused anxiety, screaming and crying. He had to be held still.
That’s why his mom, Gabby Bowman, was a bit surprised when Brody began sitting through the pokes with barely a stir.
The calming effect came from a virtual-reality gaming system created to help pediatric hemophilia patients deal with the needles they face, sometimes as often as three times a week.
“He gets totally immersed in it; he doesn’t even know what’s going on,” said Bowman, of the Northwest Side. “He doesn’t flinch. He doesn’t make a noise.”
The device, a disposable cardboard shell that holds a cellphone, slips over a patient’s eyes, providing a virtual-reality experience. Children, who need to hold their arms still while an IV line is placed, control game play with a movement of the head or by breathing into a sensor. For example, one exercise makes a dragon breathe fire.
Dr. Amy Dunn, director of pediatric hematology at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, and Jeremy Patterson, who directs user-experience technology, research and development at the hospital’s Research Institute, created the system.
Dunn said many children get infusions at home, forcing parents to stick their children with needles. Treatment generally begins at 1 or 2 years old.
“The burden that these children and their families face in order to get the right care so that they can remain healthy is very high,” Dunn said. “And there’s no end in sight. It’s a lifelong treatment. You can imagine how daunting that is.”
Care providers spend a lot of time trying to make it better. They start children young to make exposure to needles a little less traumatic. Children might be distracted by singing a song, watching TV or playing an iPad game.
But the virtual-reality gear takes things a step further. Bowman said her son doesn’t even flinch when playing a game in which penguins stack ice blocks.
Once immersed in a game, children become quiet and unaware of what’s going on around them, Patterson said. And parents get distracted by watching along on a monitor.
“It’s led to genuine celebratory moments,” he said. “People have cheered. It’s kids coming in crying and not wanting to be there, shifting over to people laughing. It’s a complete 180.”
“Everyone is so focused on the child having fun that the medical team gets to do what they need to do, and before you know it, everything is done and everyone walks away a little bit happier,” she said.
The group has run a feasibility trial to make sure the device could be used in a busy hemophilia clinic. More trials, and funding, are needed before the device can be used on a wider scale.
Patterson said the team that worked on the process is excited to see results that change lives.
“I’ve never experienced anything like it in my life,” he said. “The moment when you see how it changes tears to smiles — there are a lot of people who work their entire lives and don’t see that effect on somebody. It’s been the project of a lifetime.”
A goal is to get the devices into other clinics, such as those for cancer patients.
Gabby Bowman wants them available to consumers. She has tried other virtual-reality sets for Brody’s in-home infusions, but they don’t work the same and are of little help.
The new gear, she said, is remarkable.
“He said ‘ouch’ and that was it — totally different than the screaming and the crying and having to be restrained by multiple people,” Bowman said.