Recently, I stood in the intensive care unit (ICU) visiting a loved one who was recovering from heart surgery. Furtively, I glanced around trying to conceal my apprehension. Why is the equipment making noises? Will he have empathetic nurses? What if something goes wrong and he never comes home?

When an extroverted, wisecracking nurse walked in, I relaxed. Briefly, my family and I mentally escaped our bleak surroundings.

Compassion – and innovative technology – are propelling a new study called “VRICU: Virtual Reality to Improve Cognition in the Critical Care Unit.” Patients wear a reality headset and are transported to environments such as a beach, park or statue garden.

“We were looking for some kind of a novel strategy to reduce pain, reduce anxiety, reduce the medications that we use to treat pain and anxiety – all while providing patients some kind of cognitive stimulation,” asserts Dmitriy Golovyan, an Indiana University School of Medicine pulmonary and critical care doctor. “Because for days or even weeks at a time, the only thing the patient sees is the ceiling tiles of their ICU room.”

Dr. Babar Khan’s observations at the Eskenazi Health Critical Care Recovery Center (which he started in 2011 to assist with patients’ recovery after a stay in the ICU) led him to develop the study.

“I started noticing the problems when they come over (for follow-up visits) – three months, six months out of the ICU. They are having dementia-like symptoms in which they’re forgetful. They cannot pay attention. They cannot balance their checkbooks and things. I started thinking, ‘OK. No. 1, we need to somehow reduce this in the intensive care unit: the confusion and inattention. And improve patients’ cognition in the ICU. With that, hopefully we can see improved (long-term) outcomes.”

Curious about how the virtual reality technology works? Find out why it’s unique and potential future applications in the current issue of BizVoice magazine.

Symone Skrzycki is the communications manager for the Indiana Chamber. She is also a writer for the Chamber’s award-winning BizVoice magazine and has been with the organization for 18 years.