April 2023Hope & Cope

Virtual reality goggles a welcome distraction for chemotherapy patients

Offered by Hope & Cope as entertainment during lengthy treatment sessions

When Alejandro Rincon feels he needs a break from chemotherapy, he shifts his perspective and goes somewhere else—Morocco, perhaps, or Australia, if he’s in the mood.

Although the trip lasts only 10 or 15 minutes, Mr. Rincon is so caught up in it—watching immersive video travelogues with the aid of virtual reality goggles—that he feels almost as if he has walked away from the JGH’s Segal Cancer Centre.

“It’s feels so good to be distracted for a while,” says Mr. Rincon, who was being treated for a form of leukemia this past winter. “There are times when I feel I need to go to another place and really feel like I’m there.”

On average, he has been spending 2½ hours per session in the chemotherapy chair, Monday through Friday. He often brings a book to read, roams the internet on his phone, or simply sleeps.

However, the virtual reality goggles give him another option that makes an enormous difference to his well-being and peace of mind.

When first introduced by Hope & Cope in Palliative Care at the JGH in 2018, the goggles provided a much-needed outlet for bed-ridden patients, who felt relief and happiness on being figuratively transported to exotic locales, if only for brief periods.

At the time, the JGH was the only hospital in Quebec where patients had an opportunity to use virtual reality videos in this way, says Rifka Hanfling, the Hope & Cope Coordinator in Palliative Care, who was instrumental in making the program a reality.

As a result of the positive comments from patients, Hope & Cope decided to expand the use of the goggles to those undergoing chemotherapy, where the tiring and frequently tedious sessions can last anywhere from one to five hours.

“A movie is just something you watch; virtual reality is a ticket out of here.”

The goggles are generally available twice a week when a trained Hope & Cope volunteer is on duty—Tuesdays from 1:00 to 4:00 p.m. and Fridays from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

For some people, the goggles create such a realistic experience that their use is supervised by volunteer Anastasiya Gudymenko, a kinesiology student at Concordia University, or her colleague, Zoe Romano.

Travelogues—to destinations such as Italy, France, Israel and Alaska—are the most requested videos, says Ms. Romano, who is in a Grade 12 program as an alternative to CEGEP. However, she notes, many patients also enjoy the simulated experience of attending a concert.

Ms. Gudymenko says some patients are satisfied to sample the goggles for three or four minutes, while others carry on for up to 45 minutes. “It’s not the kind of pastime you’d pursue for as long as an hour, because it really fills the senses,” she explains.

Hinda Goodman, Coordinator of Hope & Cope’s Oncology Program, says the availability of the goggles was made possible through a gift from a former volunteer and speech therapist, the late Marilyn Fichman.

“Marilyn had gone through chemotherapy herself,” Ms. Goodman says, “and she was aware that many people sometime became anxious and frustrated. They desperately need some sort of distraction while getting their treatments.

“She understood that when you’re in chemo, you need something that can put a smile on your face. And once people get into virtual reality, they really love it! It keeps them from focusing on the fact that they’re just sitting there and receiving treatment.”

The initial reaction among first-time users is usually amazement, followed by gratitude for having access to something that’s such a refreshing mood changer, says Ms. Romano.

“I’ve even had people ask me, ‘What is this thing? What’s it called? I want to buy one!’” Ms. Gudymenko adds with a smile.

“Even if they’ve brought an iPad of phone with them to watch a movie or TV show, using the goggles is entirely different,” she says. “A movie is just something you watch; virtual reality is a ticket out of here.”

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