When Karla O’Donnell was diagnosed with breast cancer early last year, she worried it was a death sentence.

She had recently watched her sister go through chemotherapy and radiation treatment — for the same type of cancer.

Drawing from her own experience, O’Donnell’s sister walked her through radiation treatment, step by step, to help ease worries.

Regardless, O’Donnell said her first radiation session was miserable.

“All these thoughts (were) going through my mind like, 'Oh, my gosh, they're burning my skin. I can feel this. It hurts. ... And it was none of those things,” she said. “You can't feel it. It doesn't hurt. But my mind was just so wrapped up about what was going on with me.”

The next day, when she showed up for another round of treatment at St. Luke’s hospital in Duluth, they had a virtual reality headset ready for her.

“It really relieved the stress in the beginning tremendously,” she said. “You could be wherever you wanted to be in (the) world.”

The lump found in O’Donnell is now gone. But numerous others who must also go through radiation therapy at St. Luke’s are using VR headsets to improve their experience with the stressful treatment. Other entities in Duluth, like the College of St. Scholastica and Benedictine Living Community, have also harnessed the power of VR.

Although many use the tech as personal entertainment, those in the medical field are taking notice.

St. Luke’s first used VR in 2018, when Dr. Nils Arvold and psychologist Petra Woehrle had an idea to let a radiation patient experiencing anxiety use the tech. They had previously heard about VR being used in other medical settings, like during chemotherapy infusions and the changing of a burn patient’s dressing.

This patient finished their treatment by the time St. Luke’s received a headset. They let another patient, who had undergone a few radiation treatments that were “anxiety provoking,” try it.

During the patient’s first experience with VR, “it was more or less night and day,” Arvold said. “He was totally relaxed, like when my kids are watching TV.”

Karla O’Donnell, the breast cancer patient, said beaches were her favorite scenes.

“I could just get ... in the zone and just block everything out,” she said.

Some patients, however, find that using the tech is “a lot to digest” and can be too much to handle, Arvold said.

In the following months, the hospital acquired three headsets through grant funding and let several patients use them during treatment. From this, they knew anecdotally that the tech relieves anxiety in some — but no one had conducted a study on its use in this capacity.

This prompted Arvold and Woehrle to launch their own VR study at St. Luke’s. The team is currently studying how VR may alter self-reported anxiety in radiation patients. They hope to enroll 40-50 radiation patients in the study this year.

The results, Arvold hopes, will help them understand who VR works best on, allowing them to target what patients will gain the most from its use. They may even find that it could be an alternative to anxiety medication, which can make people groggy, Woehrle said.

VR reaches higher ed

The tech is also being used to train the next generation of medical professionals at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.

Although in its beginning stages, a team of researchers and educators are studying and experimenting with its use in CSS classrooms, said Ben Adams, chief information officer at CSS and a member of the VR team.

“I think something that we keep going back to is we are really early in VR,” said Eric Mistry, instructional technologist and member of the team. But there are numerous potential possibilities for educational use that are impossible to experience any other way.

College of St. Scholastica chief information officer Ben Adams explains to biology student Meredith Kevan the use of the remote paired with the virtual reality goggles sitting in front of her during a recent demonstration of the technology. The use of the technology in health care is growing, including its use as training tool at CSS. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
College of St. Scholastica chief information officer Ben Adams explains to biology student Meredith Kevan the use of the remote paired with the virtual reality goggles sitting in front of her during a recent demonstration of the technology. The use of the technology in health care is growing, including its use as training tool at CSS. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

One of these is the opportunity to view a lifelike heart while it’s beating — done so through software the team built because of limited educational VR software.

Using a remote, the user can alter the heart’s pace or give it an irregularity to see how it changes. The only other time most health students come close to seeing a lifelike heart is when they work with cadavers.

“But the vast majority of them — 90%, plus — will never see another heart ever again in their entire lives,” Adams said. “The other issue is, when you look at the cadaver, it's a real heart, but it's not moving.”

Seeing and observing a beating heart may help students understand and interpret electrocardiograms, or tests that measure electrical activity of the heartbeat.

“The expectation is that there will be stronger clinical outcomes because they have this better understanding of what's going on in the heart,” Adams said.

CSS also recently started using VR to practice hands-on clinical work. It has simulations to work on decision-making skills in a setting where multiple patients need help at once, as well as practice diagnosing patients and empathy.

“It's a safe place to fail and learn from it,” said Greta Jenkins, who’s on the VR team.

By shifting some learning to headsets, the amount of time students spend doing hands-on work increases. Students don’t face limited numbers of mannequins or time-constrained simulations that use actors, Adams said.

Although they first rolled out VR to students pursuing medical careers, he said they’re starting to work with other departments to implement the tech.

“Higher education is still trying to figure out, 'What the heck is this thing? What can you do with it?'” he said.

One of the pairs of VR goggles the College of St. Scholastica owns. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
One of the pairs of VR goggles the College of St. Scholastica owns. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Training to improve care

The Benedictine Living Community of Duluth has also found a use for VR.

In late 2019, the elderly care facility started giving employees the opportunity to experience what some of its residents are going through as they age, said Brian Pattock, administrator of BLC Duluth.

It offers Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease experiences. By understanding these symptoms, Pattock said it will help its staff better serve residents and “meet them where they’re at that day.”

“Historically, kind of the train of thought was we always had to train or educate the resident to be present. And today, really, researchers found that's not the best route,” he said. “So if they think it's 1920, then we're all in 1920, too, today.”

Benedictine also uses VR to simulate hearing loss and macular degeneration, where a black spot appears in a person’s center of vision. This teaches the caregiver to approach from the side instead of straight on, Pattock said.

“It's about providing tools for the staff to be able to approach and care for the residents more effectively,” he said.

It’s offering the training to those going through orientation, and has plans to roll it out to staff working in its memory care units and then to the rest of the employees, he said.

Residents' family members will also be able to see what their loved ones are experiencing, he said. “(It) may help generate a little bit of understanding of what their loved one is experiencing as well.”

Eventually, Pattock said they plan to venture into letting residents use VR for enjoyment.

“But just right now, we felt that the greatest impact we can make is by creating a better equipped workforce," he said.