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    Reimagineering chemotherapy

    One physician’s vision of an immersive healing environment for young cancer patients undergoing chemo becomes virtual reality at children’s hospitals in California and Florida.

    Fun isn’t what you’d typically expect in a chemotherapy infusion room. Yet, that’s precisely the environment an adolescent and young adult oncologist and a former Disney Imagineer created with the Infusionarium concept.

    Leonard Sender, MD, medical director of adolescent and young adult cancer care at Hyundai Cancer Institute, Children’s Hospital of Orange County (CHOC) in Orange, California, says that although he couldn’t change that teenagers with cancer would need chemotherapy, he could change the environment in which they received chemo and other types of infusion therapy. He did just that, while also creating a template for other hospitals or facilities to change any therapy room that keeps young patients captive into a virtual wonderland.

    The Infusionarium at CHOC Children’s has transformed the sterile, cold infusion environment into an interactive distraction.

    Related: Calming kids' hospital anxieties

    “My passion has always been the teenagers and young adults and understanding the needs of that population of cancer patients. One of the things that I realized a long time ago is that there is a lot being done for our babies and the little kids at children’s hospitals who have cancer, but not a lot has been done for teenagers,” says Sender, who was chairman of Stupid Cancer, a decade-old nonprofit aimed at making “cancer suck less” for young adults, according to Stupidcancer.org. He also founded and serves as chairman of SeventyK.org, an advocacy foundation charged with improving survival rates for adolescents and young adults with cancer.

    Imagine this

    The jellyfish exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey, California, is Sender’s favorite place to escape. So, when he and a colleague brainstormed about where they’d like to heal if they had cancer and needed chemotherapy, being immersed in mesmerizing visions of floating jellyfish came to mind. “Out of that, we coined the term ‘Infusionarium,’ which is really an infusion room and an aquarium,” he says.

    To bring the vision to life at CHOC Children’s, Sender contacted former Disney Imagineer Roger Holzberg, who later with Sender cofounded Reimagine Well (ReimagineWell.com), the Laguna Beach, California-based company that creates these immersive healing environments.

    Holzberg has more than a knack for creating an imagined reality. He also has experience with being a cancer patient. Diagnosed with stage 1 thyroid cancer on the eve of his 50th birthday, Holzberg endured high-dose radioactive iodine treatment.

    “This involves being locked up in a lead-lined room in a hospital until the radioactivity levels in your body have ‘cooled’ down enough for you to be back in contact with the general public. I remember the experience as being surreal and freaky. I’m surprised it’s never been used in a horror movie!” Holzberg says. “This experience was part of my motivation to find a way to treat patients in a more healing way.”

    Holzberg remembers beginning a swim off the coast of Malibu. He had just gotten past the surf break when a pair of dolphins and pups popped up no more than 6 feet away, he says.

    “[The dolphins] spent the next 8 to 10 minutes checking me out, playing, and bringing total magic into my world. This was my healing place,” Holzberg says. “The light bulb went off. As a former Disney Imagineer, my job was to create theme park attractions, and I realized that, while in treatment, I could have been here in every way but physically.”

    NEXT: Build it and they will come

    Lisette Hilton
    Lisette Hilton, president of Words Come Alive, has written about health care, the science and business of medicine, fitness and wellness ...


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