South Africa

Virtual reality headsets give children battling life-threatening diseases a 'new experience'

Virtual reality headsets give children battling life-threatening diseases a 'new experience'

For months, eight-year-old cancer patient Chiquita Breedt lay cheerless in bed, worn out from harsh treatments her tiny body had to endure — until she was handed a virtual reality kit.

When the Gauteng grade 2 pupil recently got to swim with dolphins by immersing herself in the simulated 3D experience facilitated by Reach For A Dream — a charity that grants dreams to children battling life-threatening diseases — she showed signs of returning to her perky self.

“After that experience she was a new child. She could not stop talking about it,” said her mother Genene Breedt.

Virtual reality is helping transport children like Chiquita from their hospital beds on adventures of a lifetime.

Reach For A Dream could not bear that the Covid-19 pandemic had robbed sick children of having what their hearts desired and found an innovative way of allowing them an escape by teaming up with technology company Vuma.

“It broke our hearts to see these children, most of them hospitalised and bedridden for long periods, become even more isolated during the pandemic, and without a way of having their dreams fulfilled,” said Natalie Lazaris, business head at Reach For A Dream.

“We realised that we had to find new ways of fulfilling dreams, to continue making experiences that could brighten up their day possible.”

Children who are part of the programme are given virtual reality dream days, including Disney World rides, swimming with dolphins and interactions with cute Labrador puppies that play, eat and cuddle with the child.

Dedicated dream rooms have been set up in paediatric sections of hospitals to allow them time away from their clinical environment.

“The joy of watching a child who is very compromised with a life-threatening illness put on virtual reality goggles and experience something new is beautiful. It changes the child’s daily experiences within the hospital and helps them break away from their reality,” said Lazaris.

Chiquita — who was diagnosed with a rare form of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia a year ago — chose the dolphin experience because she has never seen them in reality and loves the ocean.

The little girl, who lives in Randfontein, has been subjected to a host of treatments at the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre in Johannesburg — from lumbar punctures, to radiation and chemotherapy.

“I was so glad she got this virtual reality experience. It has been such a tough journey for us.

“We have tried to keep her positive ... there were some times when she refused the chemotherapy. For so many months she just lay in bed, she couldn't do anything or go anywhere. This has given Chiquita a chance to be somewhat normal again,” said Breedt.

She believes more ailing children should be exposed to the experience because it “gives them hope again, especially when they are in hospital just lying there.”

“Maybe if they get these experiences they can remember what is feels like to live again,” said Breedt.

Eleven-year-old Katia Cignoli, who since 2019 has battled nephroblastoma, a rare kidney cancer that primarily affects children, got to travel to her dream destination Disney World, where she took a virtual water ride.

“It is my dream to go to Disney World. I hope I will go there one day. But this experience took me there virtually and was very realistic.

“I think it definitely helps because you can escape from the reality that you may not be too happy with,” Katia told TimesLIVE.

The Johannesburg adolescent was dealt a double blow when her mother Sabina was diagnosed with breast cancer around the time she learnt she was afflicted with the disease.

Her mother said she was grateful for the grade 7 pupil's virtual reality experience.

“Katia has had a long, rough road. She was diagnosed in November 2019. Since then she has had two surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation — the whole trip. Three weeks before Katia was diagnosed, I learnt that I had breast cancer.

“We were in this together, we were very inspired by each other and each other's strength. What a test it has been for us,” said Cignoli.

Dr Shaegan Irusen, paediatric nephrologist at Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital, said the virtual reality platform “has changed a child's experience of their hospital admission”.

“They now experience new adventures from the safety of their beds, which gives them something exciting to look forward to. The children's excitement is tangible,” said Irusen.