Virtual pain relief: Computer helps children during cancer treatments

Monday, September 4th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ATLANTA-The lump in 8-year-old Tyler Callahan's chest is ground zero for the cancer treatments that have weakened his body, stolen his hair and reduced his weight to less than 55 pounds.

It's here, through a complex of tubing, that doctors take blood samples and feed Tyler's veins with chemotherapy drugs whose names are too long for him to remember.

For the doctors, the treatments offer Tyler his best hope for survival. For Tyler, they mean pain _ the worst of his short life, pain that made him thrash around on a hospital gurney so violently it took a nurse and his mother to hold his skinny frame down.

"I couldn't stand to see him go through any more," said his mother, Lisa Callahan.

So a team of researchers tried to make Tyler forget the pain by turning his cancer treatments into a video game.

Using experimental virtual reality software being tested at an Atlanta children's hospital, the boy doesn't see the gruesome lump on his chest or the twisting tubes of medicine.

He sees gorillas, or at least computerized images of them.

When Tyler turns his head to the right, the image moves to the left. And if he gets too close to the apes _ by using a joystick that controls his forward and backward moves _ they roar back at him.

It takes sophisticated, clunky equipment _ earphones, a large headset, joystick and a cartful of computer hardware and wiring _ costing about $4,000.

Maneuvering around with controls and becoming absorbed in a computerized world for fun is nothing new for Tyler, a video-game fanatic who owns both a Nintendo and a PlayStation system.

But for researchers, it's a breakthrough.

Similar virtual-reality software is already being used to treat mental disorders. Researchers are using simulated situations for everything from helping people get over fear of spiders to diagnosing children with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

The software for children with cancer, developed by Atlanta-based Virtually Better Inc., is the first to help people handle the anxiety of physical pain, researchers there claim.

"They get really involved with the program, and they forget what's going on around them," said Jon Gershon, a Virtually Better researcher who works with Tyler.

For now, the software's scope is limited. It is intended only for children at least 8 years old, and the gorilla landscape _ developed with help from Zoo Atlanta _ is the only option for what shows up in front of the children's eyes.

But researchers hope to expand the program for younger children, who might be frightened by gorillas, and for teen-agers and adults, who might rather watch a rock concert or a sporting event.

"The bottom line is, you're providing a distraction," said Dr. Stephen Lauer, medical director of the cancer center at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, the hospital where the software is being tested. "It has to absorb the player such that they become minimally or not aware of what's going on around them at all. You're kind of hypnotizing yourself."

Researchers concede there are still unanswered questions about using virtual reality to ease the pain and anxiety of cancer patients. They wonder, for example, whether hospitals will invest in virtual reality, which is likely to be too expensive for individual patients to afford.

"Somebody's got to pay for this," Lauer said. "All these electronic things are expensive, and somebody's got to fix them all the time."

Regardless, Virtually Better plans to try the gorilla software on 50 patients at the Atlanta children's hospital in the next few months.

The company hopes most of the children will react like 8-year-old Tyler, who said he actually looks forward to his treatments now.

"I love it," he said. "You just walk up on something, and you're on top of it. You just walk up to the gorillas. That's pretty cool."


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Virtually Better Inc.