What began as family fun — starting a campfire to roast marshmallows — took a split second to turn into a disaster. When a bottle of rubbing alcohol got too close to the flames, the fire leaped out, seriously burning 11-year-old Brandon Vazquez from Spokane. The burns were bad enough that he was immediately taken to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, the state’s only Level I adult and pediatric trauma and burn center.

Burns are terrible wounds for anyone to experience, let alone a child. And that’s why Harborview gave Brandon a special opportunity: the opportunity to step into a different reality.

World(s) at your fingertips
“Hospitals aren’t fun. No one really wants to be there,” says Amy Stillion, senior vice president of partnerships at the Starlight Children’s Foundation. “We asked, is there something special we can do to change a child’s whole hospital experience?”

That question drove the foundation and its partners to develop the “Starlight Xperience,” a program that uses virtual reality to entertain and distract seriously ill children during painful medical procedures.

When children wear a virtual reality (VR) headset, they are immediately transported out of the hospital to a world — or galaxy — of their choosing. They can go fishing, play with sea otters, have a snowball fight or build their own adventure, to name just a few. All of the content was created with the needs of hospitalized children in mind.

So far, Starlight Children’s Foundation has donated approximately 1,000 Starlight Xperience headsets to their network of 800 hospitals across the U.S., including three headsets to Harborview. Brandon, the burn victim from Spokane, was the first patient at Harborview to try it.

A powerful tool for distraction
Burn management is intensive — it can require multiple operations, repeated wound care and extended care during recovery. Patients often report that healing can cause as much pain as the original burn. Virtual reality provides pediatric burn patients with a useful, all-encompassing distraction.

“When you’re in Starlight Xperience, you are fully in whichever experience you’re enjoying,” says Chris de Haan, the foundation’s senior vice president for marketing and communications. “This, in part, is what makes it so useful and effective for distraction and redirecting focus during difficult procedures.”

For Brandon, a shy, quiet child, wearing the Starlight Xperience headset — and playing the fishing and penguin games — helped distract him when his bandages were changed or when he had to hold a difficult or painful stretch during physical therapy sessions. “There’s this one stretch I hate so much called ‘the frog,’” says Brandon.

Brandon’s mother, Maria Vazquez, noticed that Brandon’s reactions to wound care and physical therapy changed while using the headset. She also saw it help in another way — one specific to on-the-go 11-year-olds trapped in a hospital for a one-month stay.

“We’ve never stayed in the hospital for so many days,” Maria says. “The VR headset helps him to be less bored.”

VR has other benefits, too, one that have a direct impact on recovery. Because VR can be so effective at mitigating pain, providers have discovered they can sometimes reduce the dose of pain medications. This, in turn, can increase a patient’s energy and stamina.

Where it all started
Interestingly, Starlight’s VR program can trace its roots to the University of Washington.

Starlight used the foundational research of two UW scientists, mechanical engineer Hunter Hoffman, Ph.D., and UW professor of medicine and psychology David Patterson, Ph.D., to develop the Starlight Xperience. The two created the VR game SnowWorld a number of years ago to help burn patients deal with the intense pain of wound care.

It’s a good example of how partnerships — and medical science — can evolve over time.

“We took so much inspiration from the research that’s been done at the UW,” says Stillion. “And we are so grateful to be collaborating with Harborview in this way.”


With a gift to the Harborview Play2Heal Burn Center Fund.