Harbaugh Fund provides virtual thrills for Little Victors

November 30, 2016  //  FOUND IN: Michigan Medicine News,

Holding a maize and blue box up to his eyes, patient David Hicks was instantly transported from U-M’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital to Michigan Stadium.

“We’re going through the tunnel with the football team. Now I’m on the field. There’s the band. OK, that’s cool,” said the 17-year-old, twisting his head around to get the full 360-degree experience of what the largest college football stadium in the U.S. looks and sounds like on game day.

Hicks was experiencing the Big House through virtual reality viewers funded by the foundation named after Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh.

“Visiting” the stadium is just one of the many types of experiences made possible by the new Harbaugh Fund announced on U-M’s third annual Giving Blueday — a fundraiser for campus and health system programs held on the globally-recognized Giving Tuesday.

Created by a $50,000 seed donation from the Jim Harbaugh Foundation, the new fund will support activities led by the hospital’s Child and Family Life team. The fund will grow over time and has already inspired $50,000 in additional gifts from other donors.

The first project supported by the new fund: providing virtual reality viewers for every young patient. The cardboard viewers work by sliding in a smartphone and turning on virtual reality apps through the phone. Kids are encouraged to try any number of experiences, including hanging out with dinosaurs, swimming with sharks or visiting Paris or the moon.

Through the Michigan Virtual Reality app created by U-M Athletics last year, young patients also can follow the Wolverines through the tunnel and into Michigan Stadium, mingle with the band and cheerleaders and join the team in the locker room for a pep talk from Harbaugh himself.

“The possibilities are endless,” said J.J. Bouchard, a certified child life specialist and patient technology coordinator at Mott. “The viewers are a fantastic new tool that makes it easier for kids to have ‘out-of-hospital’ experiences.”

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Much-needed respite

Supplying the high-tech diversion provides yet another way for the hospital to help kids feel more at ease.

“The Jim Harbaugh Foundation is thrilled to support the Child and Family Life team at Mott Children’s,” said Sarah Harbaugh, who along with her husband, Jim, is a co-chair of the Victors for Michigan National Campaign Leadership Council for Mott and Von Voigtlander Hospital.

“We are so inspired by the stories of Little Victors fighting such courageous battles every day. Programs run by the Child Life staff are critical to bringing a sense of normalcy for children and their families.”

Hicks, who is being treated for cancer, is among the Mott patients grateful for the chance to momentarily “escape” hospital life via the viewers.

“These are the types of things that help you get through your time here,” Hicks says. “It keeps your mind off of the hard times you’re going through.”

That reflects the ongoing mission of the Child and Family Life team at Mott, whose trained professionals work with doctors, nurses and social workers to lessen anxiety experienced by children facing hospitalization and chronic or life-threatening illnesses. Services include music therapy, activity centers, procedure preparation, sibling programs, art therapy and an in-hospital school program.

‘A whole new way of engaging’

The cardboard viewers aren’t the only way digital technology supports healing at Mott. The hospital has also installed Xbox gaming consoles in every patient room and offered diverse virtual and augmented reality programs in the past year.

Among them: volunteers from Ann Arbor-based GameStart, who bring cutting-edge Oculus Rift headsets to Mott that allow young patients to experience roller coasters, submarines and other virtual worlds.

Physical and occupational therapists have also used augmented reality books created by Ann Arbor company SpellBound to help kids in rehab as they relearn functions like pointing and talking.

“The new technology has really opened our eyes to a whole new way of engaging with and serving our patients,” said Bouchard. “For kids who are stuck in a hospital room or have physical limitations that prevent them from doing some of these activities in real life, virtual-world experiences can really enhance their therapy. We can’t wait to see what’s next.”

For more stories like this one, check out the Michigan Health Blog.

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