Last flu season, 6-year-old Sydney Reese McMahon was worried when her parents told her it was time for her flu shot. Fortunately, her dad had an idea to help ease her anxieties.

Don McMahon – Sydney Reese’s dad – is an assistant professor of special education technology and focuses his research around utilizing Virtual Reality (VR) in the educational field, specifically for students with disabilities. However, his daughter’s fear about the flu shot gave him an idea that led him to connecting his research to healthcare. He decided to bring his VR headset with him to his daughter’s appointment at Palouse Pediatrics.

“She put on the headset and played for a few minutes and the nurse came over to do her job and Sydney Reese never realized she received the shot at all,” McMahon said. “At that moment I felt like parent of the year.”

The word spread fast of McMahon’s unique idea and things started to snowball from there.

Catherine Wilkins, a pediatric care coordinator at Pullman Regional Hospital heard of McMahon’s experience with his daughter and brought it to the attention of the hospital’s innovation team. This led to the purchase of three VR headsets, two for Palouse Pediatrics and one for the ER.

“Distraction techniques are varied and can truly be anything from singing, to blowing bubbles, to interactive books, to iPads, and now, VR,” Wilkins said.

Wilkins then touched base with McMahon to invite him and his team at VR2GO Lab to the Health and Innovation Summit in September, an event that showcases new advances happening within the past year.

McMahon’s team arrived to the event with the goal to spread this new idea to a much larger audience.

Closeup of Sydney Reese wearing a VR headset.
Don McMahon’s daughter Sydney Reese looks around while wearing a VR headset.

“We knew it would be a great opportunity to get our name out there, letting people know that we are working hard in the VR2GO lab to assist education, and now with this new idea, health,” lab manager Mykala Anglin said.

The WSU team wanted to take an interactive approach so they brought multiple VR headsets for people to experience firsthand the immersive aspects of VR and the connection it has to helping patients. Not only could members of the community try VR for themselves, but they also were able see what was going on in the VR headset as it projected onto a larger screen for everyone to see.

“We were surprised how many people were excited to try it first hand at the event,” McMahon said. “We had people swimming under the water with sharks and with dolphins.”

Experience has shown that the use of VR for pediatric distraction is highly effective and is unique from other forms of distraction as it simultaneously engages different senses, Wilkins said.

“We were really happy to be at the event and grateful for the opportunity to make connections,” McMahon said. “It was an event that happened by chance and one of my favorite things I had done at WSU.”

McMahon said the next step is to have more content so when people use it they can do more interactive things. He gave an example of an award-winning Native American folk tale rendered into a 3D, 360-degree short film. It’s about 14 minutes long.

“It’s really cool because if you have something that would take about 14 minutes, maybe getting stitches, then that would really help,” McMahon said. “If there is a two-hour event, like an operation, then they can watch a full-length movie that is rendered for VR.”

The potential VR has for patients has yet to be fully discovered.

The research on VR is limited, however there is a lot of interest in the potential impact VR can have in healthcare, McMahon said.

“Since VR research is still in the beginning stage, this could be a good opportunity for Pullman Regional Hospital and for researchers at WSU as they work together to find data and ways for VR to reach its full potential in the healthcare setting.”

McMahon said he hopes to find ways to become more involved with the hospital as they continue to learn more about how VR can be a game-changer for patients.

Learn more about VR research on the College of Education’s website.