How virtual reality helps patients recover from PTSD after a trip to the ICU

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From heart attacks and strokes to COVID and car accidents – more than five million people will be admitted into intensive care units nationwide this year. According to the CDC, that’s about one in every 35 adults. The average stay is three days, but for seniors, that number grows to six days. And although the nurses and doctors do everything they can to save people, they can’t do anything about the feelings and trauma their patients experience after leaving a life-threatening situation. Now, researchers are working to help people overcome their fears of the ICU.

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

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

Thompson survived but the trauma she experienced during her 10 days in the ICU was life alternating.

Critical care nurse and University of Central Florida assistant professor, Brian Peach, is leading a study on patients who endure post-intensive care syndrome, known as PICS.

Studies show as many as 80% of patients who are in intensive care suffer from PTSD. A third of them cannot return to work in the first year after their hospitalization.

A virtual reality headset is helping patients cope with exposure therapy. Not only does it transport patients into the ICU with sights and sounds, but they also use smells to help them overcome their fears. Researchers can physically see the distress in their patients.

“We can see that they get sweaty, we can see that they clench their jaw,” explains UCF Restores clinician, Quentin Smith.

The sound of lawnmowers and weedwhackers reminded Thompson of her hospital bed inflating.

“I couldn't let myself fall asleep because I was so terrified that if I slept I would wake up with a tube in my throat,” she said.

After 10 sessions over a two-week period, Thompson felt her anxiety slip away.

“It's just been so different and I am so much better than I was,” she said.

ICU patients usually experience these triggers immediately after going home from the hospital, and they persist months and even years later. Virtual reality exposure therapy has been proven highly successful with first responders, military personnel, and veterans. Studies show they overcome PTSD at much higher rates than the national standard.

Contributors to this news report include: Marsha Lewis, Producer; Roque Correa, Videographer & Editor.

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