Physical therapist Adam Young,
top, fits the virtual reality helmet
on burn victim Jamie Nieto, 24.
Chuck Berman/Chicago Tribune/MCT
By Josh Noel
Chicago Tribune (MCT)
CHICAGO — This must be what torture feels like, Jamie Nieto thought during six weeks in 2003 of physical therapy for burns covering more than half his body. He bore the pain by telling himself that every day he inched closer to going home.
Unlike Nieto, who could only close his eyes to cope, patients at Loyola University Medical Center's burn unit in Maywood, Ill., in the next few weeks will be able to distract themselves by gliding through a world of snowy canyons, launching snowball fights with snowmen and watching penguins cartwheel across icy plains.
Those images will be created by a cutting-edge virtual-reality video game called SnowWorld, which doctors say will help burn patients heal at Loyola. The hospital will be the first in Illinois and only one of about 10 in the world that use the game, according to the game's creators.
Nieto, 24, a golf pro who lives in Franklin Park, Ill., tested the game Monday at the hospital where he was taken when a can of paint thinner exploded in his hand. He said it would have been his salvation as therapists prodded his skin and muscles toward rejuvenation. Even the smallest movements caused searing pain, he said.
"I used to dread that hour I knew my therapist was going to come in," he said. "They can give you medication for the pain, but you're still thinking about it constantly, and the more you think about it, the more painful it is."
Loyola spent $50,000 on the game, primarily for the equipment: a helmet that transports a patient into 180 virtual degrees of snowy tundra. As the patient's head moves, so does the landscape. Should a snowman or penguin start chucking snowballs, the player can toss back with the click of a mouse.
With a soundtrack of three songs from Paul Simon's "Graceland" album (though users can plug in their own music), the sights and sounds of the hospital become completely overwhelmed — a thorough step up from bringing an iPod to the dentist's chair.
"Distraction of pain has always been there whether it's turning on the television or the radio," said Adam Young, a physical therapist in Loyola's burn unit. "This is the next level."
The game will be restricted to patients in the 21-bed unit who are deemed medically appropriate — not too young or too old and no one who is medically unstable. They will play the game during physical therapy sessions.
"I'm excited to start using it," Young said. "A lot of times, they don't enjoy us coming and doing what is needed to be done."
A pair of Seattle scientists — one studying virtual reality and the other pain management — began trying to manage pain with virtual reality in the mid-1990s.
Hunter Hoffman, director of virtual reality research at the University of Washington's Human Interface Technology Lab, first tried using a game he had created — called SpiderWorld — to treat arachnophobics. Not surprisingly, wading through a maze of spiders worked better for people afraid of the arachnids than burn patients, he said.
"They didn't like it very much, but it did reduce their pain," he said.
He and his partner, David Patterson, a Chicago native who studies pain management at the University of Washington, turned to SnowWorld — a visual feast of icy images and cool colors, including many blues and greens.
The game is in its third generation, but the cold motif is not as important as the distraction, Hoffman said.
"It's the illusion of going inside the computer-generated world," he said. "It blocks your view of the real world. It blocks out everything. It helps you escape from your pain."
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