Pretty much nobody likes getting their blood drawn.
Some of us are better about it than others, but when it comes to needles, it’s safe to say very few people jump at the opportunity to get stuck with one — aside from the good-hearted folks who donate.
Unfortunately, part of what cancer patients have to go through for treatment includes tons of needle-y, pokey, proddy procedures that can give even the most stoic patients pain and anxiety. And for pediatric cancer patients, it’s even worse.
Jenny Hoag, a pediatric psychologist at the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, tells the story of one patient, Jamie*, whose experience demonstrates just how distressing regular procedures can be for kids with cancer and other chronic diseases:
“I had worked with him since the beginning of his treatment, and he really, really struggled,” she says. “He would get here and immediately feel nauseous and anxious and would almost always vomit, sometimes more than once, before we even did anything.”
Hoag’s job is to come up with ways to help kids conquer that discomfort and anxiety. But in Jamie’s case, he wasn’t interested.
Jamie rejected Hoag’s coping mechanisms, but once she suggested virtual reality, his curiosity won out.
Hoag brought in a virtual reality program that makes the wearer feel as though they’re underwater, being pushed along calmly while viewing colorful fish, ships, and other distracting scenes.
“Once the headset was on, he was already smiling, which I almost never saw,” Hoag says. Jamie sat through the whole 20-minute program, enjoying every moment. “He took it off and said, ‘I really want to do that again.'”
Using the immersive program, Hoag was able to help Jamie endure his procedures with a lot less stress, anxiety, and pain. But it didn’t stop there. Once Jamie saw that Hoag was right about the benefits of VR, he was suddenly much more willing to try her other coping suggestions.
While once he had been anxious and withdrawn, now his virtual reality experience was encouraging Jamie to branch out into actual reality too.
Now, Hoag is working with Northwestern Mutual and KindVR to study just how much virtual reality could benefit kids at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin and beyond.
In her work thus far, Hoag has mainly looked to solve individual cases of anxiety instead of searching for options that could be applied to help kids all over the country. “But obviously,” she says, “having an empirically supported treatment is the best way to treat kids.”
That’s why she’s preparing to apply the solution she saw work so well with Jamie to a clinical study that could result in VR programs being implemented in children’s hospitals nationwide.
Not only could VR provide a more effective way to treat patient discomfort, it could also increase the number of children that could benefit from the hospital’s psychological intervention program. With VR, many hospital staff — not just psychologists — can help patients use the equipment.
Right now, only cases that are extreme enough merit a visit from a psychologist. But if Hoag’s research proves that VR treatment is effective, hospitals could drastically increase the amount of kids receiving anxiety treatment without having to hire more staff.
For kids enduring a chronic illness, the calming effects of VR could be life-changing.
Drawing blood might not seem traumatic, but after months of frequent treatments, it can be.
“The average adolescent is having an IV maybe never, or if anything, maybe once or twice through the course of their childhood,” Hoag says. “These patients are coming in sometimes multiple times a week and having this done. So the anticipation of knowing you have to have a needle is really stressful for kids, and by the time they even get to the hospital, they’re pretty worked up about it.”
For many, the excitement of getting to use a piece of virtual reality software can help temper those feelings of nervousness or nausea, which can improve a child’s life overall by a lot.
In the end, that’s what Hoag is hoping to do: make the lives of kids with cancer just a little bit easier.
“Going through cancer treatment is probably the hardest thing that these kids will ever do — not just as children, in adolescence, but in their entire lives,” Hoag says. That’s the motivation behind her research and the efforts that Northwestern Mutual has made to sponsor similar quality of life projects to help kids with cancer.
“If there are things that we can offer that improve their quality of life or improve their experience while undergoing cancer treatment, that’s absolutely something that we want to do.”
Northwestern Mutual is the marketing name for The Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and its subsidiaries. Learn more at northwesternmutual.com.
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