For children in pain, virtual reality offers dolphins and hope, by Erin Allday

Briana Nathaniel, 14, lies listless in her hospital bed, exhausted from days of nearly unbearable pain. Her voice is small, barely a whisper, and even lifting her hand seems to take enormous effort.

Half an hour later, she’s transformed. A virtual reality visor covers half her face, but it can’t hide her grin. She’s sitting up, her hands waving around as she calls out, “Hi, dolphin! Hi, whale!”

Nothing, Briana says, can completely remove the pain she experiences from sickle cell disease. But a virtual reality game that transports her to an underwater adventure helps more than almost anything else.

“It calms you down a lot because you’re not thinking about the pain and stressing about when it’s going to stop,” Briana said. “It’s like you’re just a scuba diver, and you’re swimming with the dolphins and the whales.”

Briana is part of a study at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland testing the use of virtual reality technology to distract kids with sickle cell disease from the at-times excruciating pain that is a hallmark of their condition. Twenty-five children are enrolled in the study so far, and five more will join over the next few months.

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