ANN ARBOR, MI - J.J. Bouchard vividly recalls the week he spent at C.S. Mott Children's Hospital at the age of 7.
The fear and anxiety of getting poked with needles after being diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes were overshadowed only by the positive memories associated with his interactions with then-child activity therapist Jerry Reed.
Reed introduced Bouchard to Pitfall! for Atari 2600 -- a new world filled with swinging from vines and avoiding pits filled with alligators. Bouchard's visits to the playroom became a coping mechanism during his stay at Mott.
"I had played video games before, but that was my first real memory of playing them and having an impact on my life was at Mott," Bouchard recalls. "I shared a room with four other kids and I was getting poked a lot and I remember being really scared and not knowing what was going to happen to me. Going from being in pain to playing games in my bed really transformed the hospital."
Bouchard hasn't flipped the power button off since.
Recently appointed as the patient technology coordinator at Mott Hospital, Bouchard is responsible for bringing video games and virtual reality technology into the each of the patients' rooms.
J.J. Bouchard demonstrates virtual reality at Mott Hospital
The majority of the rooms inside Mott had Xbox 360 gaming systems installed in October. When the augmented reality craze of the Pokemon Go app hit the nation this summer, Mott was quick to turn the hospital into a hot spot for PokeStops.
Implementing the latest video games and technology into the patient experience comes naturally to Bouchard. Previously serving as a Child Life Specialist at the hospital, the 35-year-old Bouchard has turned his childhood passion into a career he describes as a dream job he "begged for" like the latest Ninetendo or Sega Genesis games he used to plead for as a child.
"Every day I am amazed I get to do exactly what I am doing," Bouchard said. "Now I have the opportunity to arm our entire staff with these devices and teach them how to use them.
"I also get to go all over the country and explain the impact the gaming community is having with its passion for helping children," he added. "It's so great that our kids get to be the first to try a lot of this brand new equipment ... and on top of all of that, I get paid to do this."
A welcome distraction
After setting up the game Eagle Flight for patient Kraven Ortiz on Wednesday, Dec. 21, Bouchard models a pair of virtual reality goggles for the PlayStation 4 inside the playroom of Mott.
"Do I look cool, or do I look silly?" Bouchard asks Ortiz.
"Silly!," Ortiz responds with a smile on his face.
Mott patient tries out Eagle Flight for PlayStation 4
Soon the playroom is filled with patients eager to go rock climbing, play the latest Star Wars virtual reality game and try on a pair of goggles that allow them to take a tour of Michigan Stadium.
Bouchard has been instrumental in bringing much of this technology to Mott, seeing the impact it has on patients like Blake Matthews.
The 16-year-old who has been in and out of Mott for treatment of sickle-cell disease since his diagnosis in 2011, is seen as resident expert in all things video games and virtual reality.
Taking a break from wearing Microsoft HoloLens goggles to augment the reality of the play area, Matthews describes the virtual reality experiences at Mott as a welcome distraction.
"It lets me do stuff that I wouldn't be able to do when I'm sick," Matthews said. "It really helps with the daily struggle of being here."
Matthews' mother, Charlotte, said having tools like virtual reality gaming systems gives her son a chance to forget about the intense pain that comes with his disease, offering a different reality existing outside of the hospital walls.
"As a parent, what I really like about the virtual reality is there is no medication involved, so you don't have to worry about side effects," she said. "One thing I've noticed with (Blake) is when he plays, his pain level goes down quicker than with anything we've seen."
The next generation gamers
Whether it's providing virtual reality viewers that allows patients to visit Michigan Stadium without leaving their rooms or allowing them to hang out with dinosaurs or ride roller coasters, Mott continues to move forward with augmented reality programs that give patients a unique experience.
Created by a $50,000 donation from the Harbaugh Foundation, a new fund supports activities led by the hospital's Child and Family Life team with the goal of supplying every patient with virtual reality viewers.
Mott patients immerse themselves in virtual reality
The viewers work by sliding in a smartphone and turning on virtual reality apps through the phone. Kids are encouraged to try many experiences, including heading to the Big House to see what a typical game day is like.
New virtual reality apps are being developed every day that let kids visit faraway places, see extinct animals and even go to space, Bouchard said, giving patients a new tool that makes it easier for them to have "out of hospital" experiences.
Other technology like Microsoft's HoloLens present patients with an augmented reality experience that turns their hospital room into a magical play world.
"You can see everything in the real world but with the glasses it presents augmented reality images that allow them to see things like dancing monsters or fairies flying around," Bouchard said. "What's neat is they can manipulate the space around them, so instead of being in this dark virtual world, they can change their rooms into their own magical playroom."
Mott has been a leader in partnering with companies like Ann Arbor-based GameStart to bring virtual reality experiences to children since the spring of 2015.
GameStart's Antonio Perez said the partnership with Mott's Child Life department has been encouraging in seeing the impact video games can have on children who are often experiencing high levels of pain.
"It's just the presence of mind," he said. "Normal gaming does not have the same affect. A lot of these patients have been here for days and haven't moved from their bed. When we come in and bring this technology it allows them to actually be in it instead of (being) in front of a TV."
Finding his passion
After Bouchard left the hospital at the age of 7, he played any video game he could get his hands on. Although that passion died down when he reached high school, Bouchard fell back in love with video games as a confused college student not being able to find a career path that fit his passions.
A conversation with his mother reminded him of the experiences he had with Reed, conjuring up old memories of a less complicated, simplified approach to life: picking up the controller and forgetting about the weight of life's responsibilities.
Mott's JJ Bouchard demonstrates virtual reality headset
He used that motivation to pursue a degree in recreation therapy at Eastern Michigan University. An internship at Mott in the Family Life program allowed Bouchard to work alongside Reed, giving him the opportunity to learn how specialists helped normalize the hospital experience for patients and families.
Video games, Bouchard said, provide a natural bridge to help children come out of their shells in what can be an intimidating environment, while making the entire hospital experience more comfortable for patients and their families.
"It takes the focus off of their ailments," he said. "When children go to the hospital, they might be nervous to see their sick brother or sister, but when they're able to start talking about game strategy or interacting through the games, it breaks down that initial barrier of them being in a strange place. They might also be nervous to talk to a nurse or a doctor, but when you start talking to them about video games, they might eventually start opening up about their life or what they do or don't like about being in the hospital."
Game systems like the Xbox 360, Playstation 4 or Wii also offer opportunities for physical activity that can be hard to come by when cooped up in a hospital room for weeks at a time.
On top of that, Bouchard said, games often provide a sense of normalcy to the lives of children who feel at home being able to compete with their online friends and people they love even if they can't be by their side in the hospital.
"All of our Xbox 360 systems have online capability that allow them to play with their friends, whether it be their neighbors or people from other countries," Bouchard said. "It allows them to be more social, because they can't go out into the physical world and do things like play sports. They aren't judged for any physical impairments, so it kind of levels the playing field for them and makes them feel more normal."
It has made a noticeable difference to those who work in Child Life at the hospital, said Byron Myer of Mott's Community Relations department, thanks to the progress Bouchard has been able to make in a relatively short period of time.
"He has made it grow probably twice or three times what it was since he started," Myer said. "This has been in the past year or so. It's really amazing to see how much this has taken off in the last six to 12 months. I even look at something like Pokemon Go, where we were one of the only hospitals he was able to get this plug for because he was instrumental in getting so many kids involved with it. Now a lot of hospitals are reaching out to him about virtual reality."
Bouchard said he tries to approach his job with the same enthusiasm as his protege Reed, who showed him the importance of maintaining a sunny disposition at all times with patients at Mott prior to his passing in 2010.
"That's what I wanted to do my entire life -- to make education and entertainment accessible to everyone; to make scary or frightening things more fun," Bouchard said. "One of the things I noticed about him was no matter how bad his day or previous visit had gone, he would always hit the reset button and the next patient would always get a fresh, happy Jerry. That lesson really stuck with me."