Patrons: Bill Beaumont, Mark Lawrenson & Tisha Merry Reg Charity No: 512186

Virtual reality is opening up new experiences to hospice patients

A dad diagnosed with a rare incurable condition who loved snorkelling before he became ill has experienced the sights and sounds of the sea once again – from his hospice bed.

St Catherine’s Hospice in Lostock Hall is pioneering a diversional therapy which uses virtual reality to transport hospice patients around the world to enjoy experiences which may now be out of their reach.

The hospice has signed up to the DR:VR programme for a 12 month trial to assess the impact it has on reducing patients’ pain, stress and anxiety, or simply to provide a welcome distraction from their illness.

The first patient to experience it was Phil Morris, who chose an underwater experience after being a keen snorkeler for years.

Phil, aged 58 and from Bamber Bridge, is living with a rare degenerative disease affecting the nervous system called Multiple System Atrophy (MSA). The condition has affected his muscles, speech, breathing and balance, leading to mobility problems and difficulties communicating.

The virtual reality film, which is watched through VR goggles, took him under the sea where he witnessed all kinds of fish and marine mammals, including whale sharks.

Phil’s wife Jeanette said: “Phil has actually been swimming with whale sharks while on holiday in Mexico so when I overheard that on the commentary I thought, oh my gosh, how wonderful! To see them again brought back some very happy memories.

“He was a really keen snorkeler in the past – he used to be gone for hours. He’s been snorkelling in Cyprus, Spain, lots of different places – and now he’s experienced something similar from right here in Lostock Hall!”

Other experiences available through the programme include cities of the world; space, adventure and wildlife, as well as a specific film designed to aid relaxation.

The kit also includes a special camera which will allow St Catherine’s to create 360degree films of events – with the aim that patients who are not able to join in with special celebrations such as weddings or birthdays will be able to watch a more realistic film of the highlights later through the VR googles.

The hospice’s Volunteer Rehabilitation Assistants – specially trained volunteers who work on the in-patient unit – will be delivering the VR project to patients. As well as assisting with mobility issues, they are there to help patients take part in things they enjoy and which could help distract them from their condition.

Jeanette and Phil – who spent nine weeks in hospital prior to arriving at St Catherine’s earlier this month – said they thought it was a fantastic idea.

Jeanette said: “We’ve spent a lot of time in hospital recently and it’s hard when you’re starting at the same four walls for long periods of time – so any kind of distraction is amazing.

“It’s different here at St Catherine’s, because there’s the lovely grounds to look out on, but having the opportunity to experience something so different is fantastic, particularly as it’s something that Phil used to enjoy so much.”

Jimmy Brash, Director of Care at St Catherine’s, said he was delighted to hear the positive feedback.

He said: “Our focus at St Catherine’s is on helping patients to have the best possible quality of life – we work in many different ways to achieve this, recognising that every person and their circumstances are different.

“Diversional or distraction therapies can help with this – taking people away, if only for a short time, from their present situation and the symptoms or worries they might be experiencing. It might be that someone dreads having blood taken and we can use VR to distract them while it is being carried out, or it might be that someone is particularly stressed or anxious and they would benefit from the relaxation film.

“Initial data from the DR:VR programme has found a 50% reduction in pain and a 56% reduction in anxiety when asking a patient before and after undergoing their virtual reality experience. We’re keen to add to this data and see if we find similar trends here at St Catherine’s.”

Phil and Jeanette, who have been married 25 years and have three children – Emma, 23, Catherine, 20 and James, 13 – said the VR was just one small element of the hospice’s care which had made a big difference to them.

“Phil is improving every day he is in St Catherine’s,” Jeanette said.

“Everyone has just been wonderful. Before Phil came here I thought people only came to a hospice to die – but now we’re looking forward to spending Christmas at home, which is wonderful.”