Children's of Mississippi patient Malekhi Smith is immersed in a virtual reality game.
Children's of Mississippi patient Malekhi Smith is immersed in a virtual reality game.
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Children’s of Mississippi patients calmed by VR voyages

Published on Monday, August 7, 2023

By: Annie Oeth,

Photos By: Joe Ellis and Melanie Thortis/UMMC Photography

Malekhi Smith of Jackson went on a safari and an undersea adventure without leaving his hospital bed at Children’s of Mississippi.

Thanks to a $63,950 grant from Child’s Play Charity, Children’s of Mississippi patients like Malekhi can take virtual reality voyages that offer patients a way to relax and have fun. Using VR headsets can also reduce pain and anxiety for patients. 

“There’s an elephant,” he exclaimed while waving the VR controller to virtually spray water on the pachyderm, his favorite part of the immersive experience.

The VR headsets from KindVR are designed for use by children’s hospital patients. Because the VR experience isn’t connected to the internet, the activity complies with federal privacy laws. The headset is designed for easy disinfecting and has individual shields for patients’ protection.

KindVR was created in 2014 by Simon Robertson, a game developer and child life volunteer at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland, California. The VR therapy is designed to be engaging but calming, letting children explore worlds under the ocean, where they can color the undersea kingdom with magic bubbles as whales, sea turtles and clown fish swim by.

In other applications, children can take a trip through an MRI to prepare for the real thing or wash elephants and giraffes on the African savannah.

Child life specialists Ashley Prendez, left, and Avery Friedmann share a laugh during KindVR training.
Child life specialist Ashley Prendez laughs during KindVR training.

“Our children are going to love this,” said child life specialist Ashley Prendez, who was among those getting virtual reality training on a virtual call with KindVR June 20. She donned the adjustable headset, which can fit children as young as 5, and jumped into the ocean to swim along with some friendly dolphins.

VR use can ease the pain of a sickle cell disease crisis or reduce the stress of an IV insertion, port care or preparation for surgery. The headsets can also make it less likely for a child to need sedation for an MRI. The devices can be used in the Pediatric Emergency Department, in clinics or in hospital inpatient rooms.

“It’s so realistic,” said child life specialist Cara Williams during KindVR training.

The patients’ experiences are the same in each use, which allows child life specialists to guide them through the VR experience as well as any medical procedures. A hand-held controller can be used by patients, but the headset can also be controlled by patients’ head and neck movements.

Cynthia Karlson

Dr. Cindy Karlson, associate professor of pediatric hematology and oncology, was among the authors of a pilot study on the possible benefits of VR use during chemotherapy port-access procedures. Research showed that of those who used commercially available VR headsets, 85.7 percent would use them again. The research did not involve the KindVR headsets.

“Our research showed that the VR headsets were very helpful in reducing the fear and pain children experience during chemotherapy-port access, particularly for younger children,” she said.