Winner of American Nurses Credentialing Center prize offers 'escape'

Breast cancer patients aren’t the only ones benefitting from an innovative stress-reduction technique.

Christiana Care’s Helen F. Graham Cancer Center & Research Institute in Newark uses virtual reality to improve chemotherapy experiences that patients dread.

“One of the main goals is to allow them to immerse themselves in another reality, because the chemo suite can be challenging,” said Cindy Waddington, the center’s clinical director.

Inside chemotherapy treatment centers, intravenous pumps whoosh and beep, carts rattle by and conversations happen on all sides. Combined with the inner disquiet that can come with a cancer diagnosis, it’s overwhelming for some.

“This gives them the opportunity to drop out of all that into a place that’s pleasant, relaxing and distracting, without being a taxing activity,” Waddington said.

The virtual reality seed money came from Christiana Care, but additional funding came after their efforts won the American Nurses Credentialing Center 2018 Magnet Prize.

The program requires relatively expensive hardware: computers, goggles and headphones. The Graham Cancer Center has seven sets. Their film collection is nature-based. Patients can choose from scenes like a rainforest waterfall, a fall forest or an alpine lake.

“We usually hear ‘Ooh, ahh,’ and then all of a sudden they get quiet and they’re immersed. Most patients then want to try another one,” Waddington said.

Patients expressed a desire for local scenes, so Christiana hired a videographer to shoot scenes such as Longwood Gardens and the Ocean City Air Show, now in post-production.

Volunteers facilitators fit patients’ goggles and headphones and run the program from the laptop. They also provide another important experience for chemo patients: social interaction.

“We had a gentleman the other day looking at the forest and he said, ‘Oh, this looks like West Virginia, where I grew up,’ and that followed with a conversation. You know, ‘Where in West Virginia?’ and ‘Do you still have family there?’” Waddington said.

The volunteers are essential. So much so, they will be honored at this year’s Governor’s Outstanding Volunteer Awards.

“When I find a patient who does want to try it, I explain it a bit. Most of them don’t even know what virtual reality is,” said volunteer Linda Downs. “But every patient that has tried it has enjoyed it.”

The volunteers are so essential that virtual reality is not offered if they are not available, and Waddington said they are always seeking new volunteers. For information, visit christianacare.org/about/volunteer.