When I tell people that Viarama delivers virtual reality sessions in schools, nursing homes, hospices, respite centres and hospitals, their reaction is often one of polite bemusement.

‘You take virtual reality into a hospice’? They’ll ask, brows knitted together. It’s a valid question I suppose, especially if it’s the first time you’ve heard of the concept.

The first time Viarama delivered a VR session in a hospice I was totally unprepared for it. When you consider that we were the first company in the world to take VR into a hospice, how could I be anything else? There was no rule book, no cheat sheet, and no procedures to follow. We were pioneering and it was an adventure.

St Columba’s was the first hospice we worked with, and the first hospice I had ever visited. When I first arrived I was met with a perhaps surprisingly relaxing atmosphere upon arrival, and the warm and welcoming smiles of the reception staff went the rest of the way to rendering any preconceptions I had completely redundant. One thing quickly becomes obvious; this is not the place you thought it was.

What did I expect? Well I’m not sure now, looking back. Perhaps a sombre place, where the atmosphere was somehow more sad? A place where that-word-we-must-not-utter was everywhere?

St. Columba’s, like all of the other hospices where we’ve worked, is a place where extremes of human emotion happen, but as such there are a great many positives to take from any hospice visit. That the nurses and the doctors and everyone else who works there care so much for others is deeply moving to me, as it reflects humanity at its greatest. That we care for each other is a testament to our true nature and when you see that unfolding in front of you, you feel its power.  

We’ve had so many wonderful sessions at St. Columba’s. One of the most memorable was with a lady I’ll call Ellen. Ellen was in the last weeks of her life when I met her, and was also in considerable pain prior to our visit. As such she was unsure if she would be able to participate. Bravely, she said wanted to give it a try, and as her bed was wheeled into the room where we were working I was immediately struck by just how frail she was.  

Her son and husband were there with her, as were two doctors from the hospice, Dr Lloyd and Dr Hall. Dr Lloyd and I worked on all of the sessions together, and I was always grateful for her professionalism, ready compassion, as well as her sense of humour which, for an Edinburgh punter, was remarkably advanced.   

Ellen’s family were clearly very nervous as I spoke with them while Dr Lloyd completed the session formalities. They told me how Ellen loved to travel, and how snorkelling and diving were something she adored. With that in mind I gently lowered the headset onto Ellen’s head and let her take in a beautiful underwater scene. She was now suddenly on a coral reef at the bottom of the ocean. As she adjusted to her new surroundings, Ellen gazed in wonder at the vivid colours of the fish, turtles, coral, and other aquatic life all around her. Slowly you could see her raise herself up while relaxing her shoulders and general posture as she became more and more comfortable. She started to turn her head this way and that to see more of this beautiful environment and the fish swimming around it, and as she pointed the different fish out to us and her energy level seemed to rise as she did.

We watched intently as Ellen relaxed, which in turn relaxed the rest of us too. After a few more moments she let out a deep and heartfelt sigh. It was a very beautiful sound to hear. At that moment Ellen wasn’t in the hospice. She wasn’t feeling pain, or fear. She wasn’t focused on her situation or the emotional state of her family. Nor was she worrying about her immediate future, or reliving her past. No. She was simply fully present in the moment, and enjoying herself.

Once Ellen had seen all she wanted to see underwater she asked if she could travel. Travel is a huge part of our work in nursing homes, respite centres, and hospices, and it is probably the most emotionally rewarding part of what we do. If you were in a hospice situation how much would it mean to you to be able to either revisit places of real significance in your life, or go to places you had always wanted to visit but were unable to? To once again be able to enjoy the view from your old house or your favourite part of the world at a time when you believe that chance has passed is a wonderful thing to be able to witness. For Ellen and for many other people, this experience would prove to be very meaningful.

The first place Ellen wanted to go to was to where she and her husband had their honeymoon. I was completely focused on making sure Ellen got the most of out of her session which is just as well, as at that moment I must confess I was afraid to look at her husband in case it was all too much for him. Gently I guided Ellen to the beach she loved and let her take in that view. She said how incredible it was that she could feel the warmth of the sun on her face again. Now, fully relaxed, and with the room rapt in attention, Ellen softly broke into a broad and beaming smile of sheer happiness. It was an unforgettable sight which was deeply moving to witness. Your preconception of a hospice probably wouldn’t include tears of joy, but I can assure you we all had them in our eyes at that moment.

Ellen visited more places all around the world during her session until her energy levels dipped again and she had to stop. The emotional demands upon patients in this scenario can be great and we are very careful not to overtax them. As Ellen adjusted to being back in the hospice, she seemed to be very positively affected by her experiences, and she told me she was so glad she did it, and got the chance to see so many beautiful things and places around the world.

After the session Ellen’s son waited until everyone else had left and approached me. With tears streaming down his face he told me he hadn’t seen his dear mum smile in months.

To this day many people still don’t understand the benefits that VR can bring to people in a hospice setting or similar. We are slowly convincing people, often just one at a time. I believe this is essential and this is why I have started this blog; to allow our work to let many more people like Ellen feel the sun on their face one last time.