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Cancer patients escape with virtual reality

Hawkin Ludlum escapes into virtual reality during chemotherapy sessions at the UCHealth Jan Bishop Cancer Center.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Swimming with dolphins, soaring above the planet’s highest peaks and rafting through Class 5 rapids can provide a welcome distraction from a chemotherapy infusion, even if only through a virtual experience.

“I’m up in a tree,” said patient Hawkin Ludlum, wearing a virtual reality headset in the lounge area at the UCHealth Jan Bishop Cancer Center in Steamboat Springs while waiting for blood test results.

Turning to see what was behind him, Ludlum said he’s learned you can miss a lot if you don’t remember to get the 360-degree view.

“Whoa,” he said, twisting his whole body around on the couch. “There’s the Milky Way and a glacier. And there’s a town over there, all lit up. Wait — that’s my favorite mountain in Switzerland. Don’t go away. I want to go back there.”

Ludlum was diagnosed with cancer last Christmas. He’s been coming in for treatments every week for 10 months. His wife, Judy, always joins him. She said her favorite virtual reality video so far has been the elephants.

As part of a new program, patients and their loved ones at the Cancer Center have been able to pass time wearing virtual reality headsets since about August.

For people dealing with all the ramifications of a cancer diagnosis, it can make a difference.

“For a brief moment, we can change their experience for the better,” said Nicole Caputo, UCHealth’s director of experience and innovation.

One patient told her, “’You took me from crying to smiling in two seconds,’” Caputo described. “That’s why we are doing it.”

Caputo herself gets choked up as she talks about reactions from patients on the positive impact of even a two-minute mental escape from cancer treatments. So far, she said patients’ primary feedback is for longer videos and the ability to play three or four in a row without interruption.

Patients can choose from immersing themselves on a beach at sunset in Maui, encountering farm animals in upstate New York or riding camels in the Sahara. There are also customized spaces where patients can just be — with adjustable colors and music.

Caputo said just being in a different place can help patients regulate their breathing, change their mood and relax their bodies.

Since the program is still new, Caputo said they are collecting data and studying the effects of virtual reality on things like stress levels, pain management and heart rate.

Ludlum said the virtual reality experiences definitely helps his mood. Just moments before, he was having trouble keeping medication down. That was soon forgotten as he watched a raft below him navigate the Grand Canyon.

“It definitely bumped up my attitude,” he said. “It’s a great distraction. Otherwise, I sit here and worry about it all.”

The hardest part is being so caught up in an adventure, Ludlum said, you don’t want it to end.

“There’s nothing like doing the Grand Canyon with a needle stuck in your gut,” Ludlom said.

Sitting next to the fireplace with a view of Steamboat Resort, the Ludlums said they’ve tried to make the most of the sessions, which typically last a couple hours. In addition to the virtual escapes, they eat lunch, play bridge and talk to the nurses.

“I call this Club Med,” joked Ludlum.

The good news is that Ludlum is now in remission. He will only have to come in once per month. And for other patients and their companions, the virtual reality offerings will only expand.

To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @KariHarden.


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