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Virtual reality can help patients go on a getaway

 
Jennifer Shamess

Jennifer Shamess, former patient and member of the Cancer Care Patient and Family Advisory Council, tested out the virtual reality equipment

Imagine looking out onto a mountain vista. You hear the birds chirping, you see the sun beaming down on the mountain range, and you watch as butterflies float by. It doesn’t sound like a typical chemotherapy or radiation treatment, does it?

With help from virtual reality (VR), patients undergoing cancer treatment at The Ottawa Hospital could soon take a virtual getaway from their hospital beds.

That’s good news for Jennifer Shamess, former patient and member of the Cancer Care Patient and Family Advisory Council.  She said that when she was at the hospital, she was always dreaming of being somewhere else.

“With virtual reality, I would have had some help in escaping for a few minutes,” said Jennifer.

Dr. Justin Sutherland, a medical physicist at The Ottawa Hospital and professor in the Department of Radiology at The University of Ottawa, said that virtual reality can be an effective tool for cancer patients.

“It’s all about taking patients out of a potentially uncomfortable experience, and bringing them somewhere pleasant,” said Dr. Sutherland. “It tricks your brain into thinking you’re there, which can improve one’s mental health.”

Engineering students at The University of Ottawa teamed up with The Ottawa Hospital to design a simulation that cancer patients could experience during treatment. Students worked together in groups as part of the Makerspace VR Challenge.

“I was impressed with every design”

The students consulted with Jennifer and other Patient and Family Advisors.  Advisors made design suggestions such as avoiding fast motions, bright colours and loud noises.

Each group delivered a unique virtual experience. The winning design, created by second year students, was a boat ride.  Patients could customize certain features such as colour, movement and length of the ride to create a unique experience. Other designs featured studio meditations, hiking up a mountain, or floating in space.

“I was impressed with every design,” said Jennifer. “Each group carefully listened to the considerations that were important to us, and then tried to integrate them into a unique VR experience.” Patients aren’t the only ones who could benefit from VR. Soon, cancer patients and their families may be able to share the same immersive experience together. 

 
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