The Surgery Patient’s Perspective on VR Technology

Conversation between Danielle Collins and Denise Silber for VRforHealth

Danielle Collins is the Chief Experience Officer of Empower 360 Foundation. Danielle, who resides in Washington DC, and came to the foundation with a business background, holds a Masters in Clinical Social Work from the University of Maryland. Deeply passionate about mental and physical health, she serves as a member of the Patient Family Advisory Council for George Washington University Hospital and is on the board of Georgetown University’s program Partners in Research. Danielle’s career pivoted, after she underwent surgery for a life-threatening brain bleed in 2017.

DS We are excited to tell your story on VRforHealth. Let’s start with the medical episode, the brain bleed, that led you to experience Virtual Reality or immersive technology.

DC Thank you, and I’m very excited to tell that story, which began on June 7, 2017. I had an excruciating headache and neck pain and went to a hospital for a CT scan around 8 am. Five minutes into the exam, the medical team told me they would have to find me an ICU bed at another hospital. I was transferred to an ICU at GW Hospital, and around 2pm, I learned that I had an AVM, an arteriovenous malformation, that was bleeding and would need open brain surgery, a craniotomy. By that time, I was feeling somewhat better and was not ready to undertake such a risky surgery.

DS And your surgeon decided to show you what was happening in your brain?

DC Yes, having just acquired a system from Surgical Theater four days prior, they rolled in a monitor with the scan of my brain image. My family could see the image on a screen, while I, thanks to an Oculus Go headset, could see the flythrough in virtual reality. I could see the bleed and the arteries it was affecting. Everything I was feeling physically made sense when I saw that. Most people with that kind of bleed would be in a coma. But with my low blood pressure, I was awake. I saw the site of the hemorrhage and could understand that the surgery was necessary. The surgeon walked me through my CT scan in color, in three dimensions. We went through every scenario of the surgical plan. The immersive technology gave me a level of confidence I could not have gotten otherwise.

DS That’s fantastic. Can you tell us of some of the other cases you know about?

DC I have spoken with countless patients and know many neurosurgeons. One of our best family friends, a sports news executive suffered a brain bleed while on a trip from Atlanta to California. I was able to call Surgical Theater and had them build a scan of his brain. This gave the California medical team a new direction and the operation was very successful. I can also mention a young athlete who had been told that he had an inoperable tumor in his spinal cord. He flew to a hospital in New York, where the surgeon had access to Surgical Theater scans. Those scans made the tumor operable and he made a remarkable recovery.

DS And these stories led you to define your mission of providing all patients with access to medical AR/VR technology.

DC Yes, I believed so wholeheartedly in what Surgical Theater was doing, that I jumped at the opportunity to tell my patient story at conferences around the nation, including Intel’s Global Manufacturing Convention, Cleveland Clinic’s Patient Experience Conference, Virtual Medicine at Cedars-Sinai where we connected, NEXUS USA Summit and AIPAC.

With my background in marketing, advertising and social work, I saw that there was an opportunity to create a Foundation to advocate for the availability of immersive technologies. I was looking for a partner and the CEO of Surgical Theater, who had been one of the first people to call me after the operation, introduced me to Diana Judovits. In launching the Foundation together, we spent our first two years meeting with the key players, to really understand the space.

DS One of your key actions so far has been the endowment at Hoag Memorial. What can you tell us about that?

DC We endowed the pioneering Dr Robert Louis, a neurosurgeon at Hoag Memorial. The official title is the Empower360 Endowed Chair for Skull Base and Minimally Invasive Neurosurgery at the Pickup Family Neurosciences Institute at Hoag Memorial Hospital. As Dr Louis would say, the immersive technology not only enables his hospital to identify the best surgical plan, it enables the patient to understand what has to happen. As a result, a significantly higher percent of patients stay on for surgery in that hospital. Dr Louis has some very compelling statistics, based on thousands of patients. The attrition rate dropped from 36% to 4%.

DS How do you see the future?

DC Our hope is that the dissemination will continue to rise, which is why we consider that what you are doing at VRforHealth to inform patients about the uses of Virtual Reality is so important. Our wish is that one day soon the use of immersive technology will no longer be a surprise, the way it was for me. We also hope that these technologies will be reimbursed and that hospitals will set aside a portion of their budget for innovation.

Thank you, Danielle for a very inspiring story.