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Health Spotlight: Virtual reality helping ICU patients recover from trauma

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — From heart attacks and strokes to COVID-19 and car accidents, more than 5 million people will be admitted into intensive care units across the country this year.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that’s about 1 in every 35 adults. The average stay is 3 days, but for seniors, that number grows to six days.

Though doctors and nurses do everything they can, there’s little they can do about the trauma their patients experience after leaving a life-threatening situation.

Now, researchers are using artificial intelligence and virtual reality systems to help people overcome their fears of the ICU.

What started out as an outpatient procedure for a cyst removal turned into a near-death experience for Cheryl Thompson.

“I had two collapsed lungs, double pneumonia, and an infection running through my body. My heart had stopped,” Thompson said.

Thompson survived but the trauma she experienced during her 10-day stay in the ICU was life-altering. Thompson says she remembers that when she was taken off the ventilator, the fear of having to be put back on the machine was almost instant.

Brian Peach is leading a study on patients who endure post-intensive care syndrome, or PICS, which causes the mind to believe that problems remain after recovering from a critical illness.

Peach’s research shows that as many as 80% of patients who are in ICUs suffer from PTSD, and a third of them are unable to return to work in the first year of their hospitalization.

Researchers are now using a virtual reality, or VR, headset to help patients cope with exposure therapy. The VR exercise transports patients to the ICU with sights and sounds, but scientists also use smells to help patients overcome their fears.

Thompson says that the sound of lawnmowers and weedwhackers reminded her of her hospital bed inflating, and she often couldn’t let herself fall asleep because she feared waking back up on a ventilating tube.

After 10 sessions of this exposure therapy over a two-week period, Thompson says she felt her anxiety slip away. “It’s just been so different. I’m so much better than I was,” she said.

ICU patients usually experience these triggers immediately after going home from the hospital, and they can persist for months or even years later.

VR exposure therapy has been proven highly successful with first responders, military personnel, and veterans, with studies showing they overcome PTSD at much higher rates than national standards.