Escape to Virtual Reality

Baby, it’s cold outside, but in the multipurpose room at Good Shepherd’s Raker Center in Allentown, resident John Gulich is sitting on Daytona Beach, Florida, soaking up the sun and loving every moment of it. John is actually immersed in a virtual reality (VR) experience, the next best thing to being there, and 21st century technology is making it possible.

There was a time when John easily traveled wherever he wanted to go. For 30 years he was a long-haul truck driver, logging 4,000 miles a week before spinal stenosis left him paralyzed and wheelchair-reliant. “I keep dreaming at night of driving,” he says. “I liked the freedom.”

Virtual reality immerses players in lifelike 3D environments to give them a feeling of being there as an observer or a participant. Want to sit courtside and watch live as your favorite NBA stars mix it up? There’s a program for that costing a lot less than a ticket. How about getting behind the driver’s seat of a flamingred Ferrari 458 race car or shooting down city streets at breakneck speed in a luge, dodging obstacles and maneuvering hairpin turns?

For Good Shepherd residents like John with limited or no use of their hands, head movements wearing a VR headset control the action. While John no longer enjoys the thrill of the open road, VR has given him back that feeling of freedom by taking him out of his wheelchair, even if it is only in his mind.John’s favorite VR program is a fast-paced game of Danger Ball. Sitting in front of a big-screen television, John tilts his head to the right and left, hitting the ball at his opponent, trying to break through a wall to achieve the next level of play.

John looks forward to his weekly VR sessions with Mike Losagio, a recreational therapist who introduced the VR experience to Raker residents. Mike has long been interested in VR and its potential use in health care. In his senior year at Slippery Rock University, Mike helped write a paper on the use of VR with hospital patients who were bedridden. “I learned it was a good way to help people dealing with depression and let them see the world without leaving their hospital bed,” says Mike, adding that VR is also being used to help veterans cope with post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Since being introduced in the 1980s, VR has become increasingly sophisticated with some developers exploring its use in health care to train staff. One program simulates what it’s like to have a visual disability or be in a wheelchair. The experience helps care givers build greater empathy and can help guide treatment.

Technology has long been used with Good Shepherd’s residents to help them enjoy lives of greater independence. Therapists are always looking for new programs and ways of adapting controls to give physically-challenged residents more choices. Mike had a VR system at home and began thinking about how VR could be incorporated in the therapy program at Good Shepherd. “I love that I was able to just bring this in here and try it,” he says.

Mike is now on the hunt for a very special VR program for John. “I’m trying to find a truck driving simulation,” he says.

Because John’s paralysis limits his ability to participate in games with other residents, VR literally is a game changer and a life changer. “I can’t even put the chips on the bingo board,” says John. “This is a game I can play, and it’s like being able to move again. I love it.”