Last November, Erin Martucci became the first woman to deliver a child using nothing but virtual reality to ease her pain. It was a Saturday morning at Orange Regional Medical Center in Middletown, New York, and Martucci had been having contractions for more than two hours. Her gynecologist could sense her anxiety. “Once I break your water, things are going to progress very quickly,” he said. He offered her the common ob-gyn pain relief: “Do you want an epidural?”
She’d wanted to have a natural birth, but with waves of pain hitting every five minutes, her resolve was weakening. Soon it would be too late for an epidural. But then the doctor offered an alternative: a set of Samsung Gear VR goggles.
A toy? The goggles seemed silly to Martucci, but what the hell. They couldn’t make things any worse.
When the doctor lowered the headset over her eyes, she found herself sitting on a low seaside cliff. She could hear waves crashing against the shore below. She looked around, and instead of a hospital room, she saw seagulls flying circles overhead and butterflies fluttering about in lazy circles. After a few moments, the sun began to sink on the horizon, and the Milky Way spread out above her. Fireflies twinkled; a campfire sparked to life. A woman’s voice, soft and soothing, helped her focus her mind and steady her breathing.
The pain didn’t disappear — Martucci was still aware of her contractions — but the virtual world gave her something compelling to focus on. Two hours of labor went by in what felt like 20 minutes. “When the doctor took the goggles off, I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ ” says the 40-year-old grade-school counselor.
“You’re going to push now,” he replied.
Two minutes later, she gave birth to an 8-pound, 4-ounce girl.
We are at the doorstep of a virtual reality revolution, and the upshot isn’t just more vivid gaming — it’s better health.
VR equipment is beginning to infiltrate hospitals and health clinics, helping patients to manage pain and anxiety and address phobias and depression. Early adopters are using VR software at home for therapy, guided meditation, and workouts that feel more like gaming than exercise. And as cheap headsets proliferate — a basic set can be yours for just $20 — enterprising researchers are discovering a range of wellness potentials: VR programs to battle PTSD, treat drug and alcohol addiction, and help you bounce back faster from injury. The scope of applications has helped the VR market reach nearly $14 billion this year, with a projection of $143 billion within the next four years.
Image Credit: Travis Rathbone