Advertisement
  1. News
  2. /
  3. Military

Virtual reality helps ease trauma for patients at Tampa veterans hospital

Headsets can deliver calming scenarios or return veterans to the place where the stress began.
To help manage chronic pain, U.S. Army veteran Kenneth Stewart, 59, of Montgomery, Ala., explores a virtual landscape at the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa. Stewart, a field artillery chief during Operation Desert Storm, suffers from chronic shoulder pain and post-traumatic stress disorder. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  TImes]
To help manage chronic pain, U.S. Army veteran Kenneth Stewart, 59, of Montgomery, Ala., explores a virtual landscape at the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa. Stewart, a field artillery chief during Operation Desert Storm, suffers from chronic shoulder pain and post-traumatic stress disorder. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | TImes]
Published Nov. 29
Updated Nov. 29

TAMPA — Kenneth Stewart, an Army veteran getting treatment at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital, walked into a meditation therapy session with a heart rate of 89 and shoulder pain he couldn’t ignore.

Recreation therapist James Kaplan sat Stewart down in a comfortable chair and handed him a virtual reality headset. Stewart, 59, had heard about virtual reality as therapy for veterans like him with chronic pain and post traumatic stress disorder. But he was skeptical.

That changed after a few minutes with the headset.

The room transformed into a digitized forest and Stewart’s heart rate fell to 77. He stopped thinking about his pain.

“It’s so realistic,” Stewart said. “I wish I could go there.”

Virtual reality, where headsets and the feeds they deliver make the real world disappear, has lagged as a consumer product. But there have been significant strides during the past few years in its clinical use, especially among military service members.

To help manage chronic pain, U.S. Army veteran Kenneth Stewart, 59, of Montgomery, Ala., explores a virtual landscape at the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa. Stewart, a field artillery chief during Operation Desert Storm, suffers from chronic shoulder pain and post-traumatic stress disorder. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | TImes]

Kaplan started the virtual reality therapy program at James Haley a little over a year ago and has led more than 600 sessions with patients.

On average, they report pain reduction of 1½ to 2½ points on a scale of 10 after using a guided virtual reality meditation app. The app can be adapted to display a variety of environments, including caves, cliffs and underwater reefs.

In this case, the virtual reality experience works by distracting patients from physical or mental stressors, having them focus instead on relaxing digital settings.

It’s a method tested as far back as the 1990s when virtual reality first underwent research as a therapy tool.

It’s also been applied to a method known as exposure therapy.

In the low-tech version of this method, patients with post traumatic stress disorder close their eyes and imagine scenarios that trigger their panic to identify cues that set them off and how to avoid them.

But with exposure therapy, the therapist can’t determine whether the patient is actually trying to recreate a scene or pinpoint what the patient is imagining.

That’s why Deborah Beidel, director of the University of Central Florida RESTORES clinic and a therapist with 30 years experience in exposure therapy, is now using virtual reality in her clinic.

“In VR I have more control,” Beidel said. “It allows me to make experiences more powerful.”

To help manage chronic pain, U.S. Army veteran Kenneth Stewart, 59, of Montgomery, Ala., explores a virtual landscape at the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa. Guiding him is Jamie Kaplan, recreational therapist at the hospital. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | TImes]

The RESTORES clinic treats active duty service members, veterans and first responders in a three-week intensive program where stress-inducing scenarios are virtually recreated using headsets.

Say a patient who’s a combat veteran distinctly remembers seeing a bag of trash on the side of the road moments before an improvised explosive device went off under a Humvee. Post traumatic stress disorder might be triggered whenever the patient spots trash on the side of the road.

RELATED: A Tampa startup aims to train doctors with virtual reality

At Beidel’s clinics, the patient would be transported through virtual reality to the scene of the explosion, complete with the trash bag. Only this time, there’s no explosion. Repeated sessions of this altered scenario might help the trigger go away.

Since 2011, Beidel’s clinic has treated more than 450 veterans and active duty personnel this way, and nearly 215 first-responders and survivors of mass shootings.

Her team is now developing software to help survivors of military sexual trauma.

Debate has arisen over the length of virtual reality sessions at the clinic, about two hours for some patients, and whether it can cause overstimulation. But Beidel has said none of these concerns come from patients. She also said that after completing the program, most patients no longer meet the criteria of a post-traumatic stress disorder diagnosis.

Currently, her lab uses the Bravemind software developed at the University of Southern California. For years, Albert Rizzo at USC has studied the technology’s use in treating people with military backgrounds.

Rizzo is associate director of the medical virtual reality group at the school’s Institute for Creative Technologies. He said the stigma against seeking mental health treatments is strong in the military community, where seeking therapy can be seen as a sign of weakness.

Many service members associate virtual reality technology with video games and find it easier to undergo this kind of therapy, Rizzo said. Virtual reality in clinical settings allows both patient and clinician to do things they can’t in the real world.

“The technology caught up with the vision,” Rizzo said.

More work is needed, though, before the technology can spread to every clinic and hospital. For one, a large controlled study is needed comparing patients treated with virtual reality and those who aren’t, said Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University.

Kaplan at James Haley already is getting questions about his program from veterans’ therapists across the country eager to set up their own virtual reality therapy.

For his part, patient Stewart, a field artillery chief during Operation Desert Storm who lives in Montgomery, Ala., is sold on the technology.

He’d like to get his own virtual reality headset — so he can continue his meditation at home.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. AP file photo of then Gov. and now U.S. Sen. Rick Scott
    DeSantis, Rick Scott and other Republicans have taken a strong stance on Saudi Arabia in recent days. President Donald Trump?
  2. Mandi Parsneau, 34, and her daughter Chloe Ann, 9, wait to return to their home at the Naval Air Station, Friday in Pensacola. The naval base is on lockdown after an aviation student from Saudi Arabia opened fire in a classroom building at the Naval Air Station. The attack left three dead in addition to the assailant and several injured. (AP Photo/Brendan Farrington) [BRENDAN FARRINGTON  |  AP]
    The assault was the second at a U.S. Navy base this week and prompted a massive law enforcement response and a lockdown at the base.
  3. Amie Norquist says her family has suffered health problems from mold in their MacDill base housing. They had to get rid of mold-contaminated furniture, too, in an expensive move to a new home in Riverview. [Times]
    The Tampa case is one of several nationwide that target companies managing the property.
  4. To help manage chronic pain, U.S. Army veteran Kenneth Stewart, 59, of Montgomery, Ala., explores a virtual landscape at the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa. Stewart, a field artillery chief during Operation Desert Storm, suffers from chronic shoulder pain and post-traumatic stress disorder. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD  |  TImes]
    Headsets can deliver calming scenarios or return veterans to the place where the stress began.
  5. President Donald Trump speaks at a dining facility during a surprise Thanksgiving Day visit to the troops on Thursday at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) [ALEX BRANDON  |  AP]
    The president was on the ground for more than 2½ hours.
  6. Army veteran Brenda Jameson, 50, gets her nails painted with Dazzle Dry clear polish at the Trans Fashion & Health Expo, a joint event by Metro Inclusive Health and Tampa Bay Area Department of Veterans Affairs Agencies on Saturday, Nov. 23. [BETHANY BARNES | Tampa Bay Times]
    Saturday’s Trans Fashion & Health Expo in St. Petersburg was a day long event intended to help the transgender community gain access to resources and services.
  7. Maintainers prepare KC-135s refueling planes to be evacuated from MacDill Air Force Base in August. A new study predicts MacDill and other Florida bases will experience a sharp rise in the number of days when the heat index tops 100 degrees Fahrenheit, making it unsafe to be outside for extended periods. [MONICA HERNDON  |  Tampa Bay Times]
    MacDill Air Force Base is predicted to see big increases in days the heat index tops 100 degrees.
  8. Andrew Morrow, 67, an Army veteran, has a place to live through Operation Reveille and the Tampa-Hillsborough Homeless Coalition. Some days, Morrow said, he would wake up crying after a night on the streets. [MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE  |  Times]
    Through Operation Reveille, advocates spend the year finding housing for Hillsborough’s homeless veterans. Their numbers have fallen since it launched in 2014.
  9. Smoke rises after an Israeli forces strike in Gaza City, Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019. Israel killed a senior Islamic Jihad commander in Gaza early Tuesday in a resumption of pinpointed targeting that threatens a fierce round of cross-border violence with Palestinian militants. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa) [HATEM MOUSSA  |  AP]
    The Israeli strike killed Bahaa Abu el-Atta and his wife, setting off a furious barrage of Gaza-fired rockets that reached as far as the Tel Aviv
  10. U.S. Army veteran Don Adams, 65, (right) holds his Veterans Treatment Court Certificate of Completion as he hugs Hillsborough Judge Michael Scionti last week. The special court graduated its 700th veteran during a presentation  in honor of the Veteran's Day weekend. "This court saved my life," said Adams, who did not want to participate in the program at first. "This court saved me from me." Pictured left is James. A Jeffries, Chaplain for Hillsborough County veterans. [JOHN PENDYGRAFT   |  Times]
    The specialized version of drug court puts veterans’ rehabilitation at the forefront. It is becoming a national model.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement