Virtual Reality Gives Sick Babies Their Best Chance

Advancements in medical technology are giving critically sick patients their best chance of getting well.

That's especially true for babies born with congenital heart defects, which often require complex surgeries when babies are just days old.

Doctors at Children's Health in Dallas have developed new virtual reality tools so they can "virtually" operate on a baby's heart before they enter the operating room.

Rowan Sanders' smile can light up a room as it often does for her parents, Zachary and Haley.

At 15 months old, Rowan has spent half her life in the hospital. She's had countless appointments and procedures related to the congenital heart defect doctors discovered the day she was born.

"When you find out something that serious is going to happen with your baby, you kind of go into the flight or fight mode, where you don't have a chance to worry about you. It's more so, 'Let's do it. Let's get to it, whatever we have to do. Let's get it done," Haley said.

For Rowan, that meant complex, high-risk heart surgery at 18 days old.
However, surgeons had a plan.

Rowan's surgeons used immersive virtual reality developed by Dr. Aashoo Tandon at Children's Health and UT Southwestern in Dallas. In this space,  surgeons can "virtually" step inside a patient's heart, which in reality, is about the size of a walnut.

It's the latest advancement to the technology he showed NBC 5 two years ago.

"What you had was kind of like what you see what the movies, when you put on glasses and you get to see depth perception, but you can't be inside it. What we have developed is the ability to zoom in and be inside the heart," Tandon said.

Virtual reality is quickly becoming a popular tool at medical and nursing schools and for catheterization lab procedures, but Tandon said its impact will be most felt by families of these congenital heart patients, who make up the largest group of patients relying on surgeons to re-arrange the anatomy of the heart.

"The whole goal is that the surgeon spends more time thinking about the patient before the operation instead of during the operation," he said.

It gives peace of mind to the Sanders family, who will have to endure another surgery when Rowan is older.

"Think of where we will be by the time that she is 10! We could probably do this and not have to open her up," Zachary said.  "Medical technology is just amazing."

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