Gillette childlife specialist Karla Schaitberger uses Michael Cao’s VR app to prepare Grady Sommer for an MRI scan. (Courtesy of Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare)
Michael Cao of Shoreview was only 7 years old when his sister Amy was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
It was a year that changed everything for his family and affected the course of his life.
“On her 10th birthday we had a party at our house,” remembers Cao, now 17. “Her friends were supposed to sleep over, but she started having trouble saying words and she threw up.”
His parents, Jian Cao and Nancy Yu, Chinese immigrants who work for rival science companies in the Twin Cities, spent the following year trying everything to save Amy, including flying her to other states and another country for treatments. But the tumor could not be removed and she eventually slipped into a coma and died on a spring day in 2009.
As Cao grew up, he knew he wanted to honor his sister in some way. His mind kept returning to the look of terror on Amy’s face after her first MRI scan. He started to wonder if he could help relieve the anxiety of other children experiencing that trauma.
Michael Cao, 17, of Shoreview, designed a virtual-reality app to help prepare children for MRI scans. The app is being used by Gillette Children’s hospital in St. Paul. (Deanna Weniger / Pioneer Press)
After some trial and error, Cao, a senior at Mounds View High School in Arden Hills, finally hit on an idea that is already helping children at Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare in St. Paul. It’s a virtual-reality app that prepares the child for an MRI scan.
HOW IT WORKS
The app is a 90-second computer program housed in virtual-reality goggles that strap onto the head. As it begins, the wearer sees a cartoon image of a little boy perched on the edge of what looks like a hospital examination table.
The wearer can turn his head from side to side and up and down looking all around the hospital room. The goggles are also equipped with headphones that help the person feel totally immersed in the experience.
With both the eyes and ears engaged, the mind is virtually tricked into believing the body is really standing in that room. A kind woman’s voice begins to talk, explaining what the MRI scan will be like.
Then, the view begins to change. The wearer is no longer looking at the little boy; he becomes the boy and lies back on the table, which begins to slide slowly into the machine.
Even in the simulation, the feeling of claustrophobia is present, as the wearer senses the walls of the machine, like a narrow tube, surround his body.
That’s one of the sensations clinicians say triggers anxiety in children. That, and being separated from their parents for the procedure.
“Claustrophobia is a big deal,” said Chantel Barney, a clinical scientist at Gillette’s. “You’re in a small space, and that gets scary.”
Then come the loud noises. The MRI machine is basically a large electromagnet. The banging sounds come from the magnet being switched on and off, causing the metal coil to contract. The magnet is forcing a reaction in the protons within the body, causing them to send out weak radio signals that the machine captures and interprets into an image.
“Kids assume loud and scary sounds are going to hurt you,” Barney said.
The final obstacle is getting kids to lie very still. If they move during the scan, it may have to be repeated. If they are too terrified or disabled to lie still, they may have to be sedated, something physicians prefer to use as a last resort, because of the risks and the desire to reduce a child’s exposure to heavy medications, Barney said.
“That’s a hard task to get children through, especially those with developmental disabilities,” Barney said. Gillette uses MRI scans to look for anomalies in the brain and spinal cord.
Cao came up with a simple game within the simulation to help the child understand this concept. As the wearer lies on the table, a purple circle appears in front of him. In the center of the circle is a red star. If the child moves his head, the star moves out of the circle. They are told to try to keep the star inside the circle by holding very still.
If the child is successful, the program ends with confetti and cheering.
Cao, who excels in economics, science and tennis, began experimenting with his MRI preparation plan in middle school using 3D-printing technology.
He thought if he could create the room and the machine like plastic dollhouse toys, kids could interact with them and feel a measure of control over their situation. However, the models did not address all the issues that trigger anxiety. When virtual reality started taking off, Cao saw that as a better way to prepare a child.
“It’s so immersive and realistic,” he said. “I started learning how to make VR apps.
“I wanted them to see that the MRI is going to be loud like a construction site, but it doesn’t touch you.”
Earlier this year, Cao contacted Gillette about an internship in order to get feedback on his project.
Barney said the internships were designed for college students, so when she heard a high schooler wanted the job, she had her doubts.
“I thought, ‘Oh, gosh, that’s probably not going to go well,’ ” she said.
She agreed to hear him out.
“I was blown away,” she said. “He gave his presentation so confidently. It was unbelievable. He was on time. He showed up for meetings. He was prepared. He gave feedback. He’s definitely mature beyond his age.”
Cao’s economics teacher at Mounds View, Martha Rush, said his brilliance has helped their economics teams win awards around the state. But even with his accomplishments, he never brags or acts superior.
“He’s very hard-working and he’s humble,” she said. “He’s really great at leading other students. He’s a good team member and doesn’t need a lot of personal glory.”
When he talks, he is quiet and respectful, getting most excited when he explains how the first few test subjects at Gillette received his app.
He was allowed to explain the app to patients, and he prepared a survey for them to fill out about their experience. Barney estimates that about 30 people have used the app.
What surprised Cao was the added benefit of parents wanting to try the app to understand what their child would be going through.
Barney said clinicians can use the feedback to see if the child will be able to lie still for the procedure, or if sedation will be needed.
Cao hopes to eventually get his app into as many hospitals as possible. To help spread the word, he created a foundation called “See Your Dream,” which is designed to raise awareness and money, get equipment donated to hospitals and help him expand to other hospitals.
His parents are pleased with what he’s done.
“I think it’s a good tribute to his sister,” his mother said. “We are very proud of him.”
Cao said he is excited to have found a way to honor her.
“It has been a long time since my sister had to go through this,” he said. “It’s pretty great to see the families and children being more confident about it. It’s something my family would have benefited from.”