Hospice Patient Skydives Once More, Thanks to VITAS and Virtual Reality

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By Chelsea Cook-McCarrell, General Manager for VITAS® Healthcare

From the cramped cabin of the aircraft, VITAS Healthcare patient Kim peered out through the open door and took in the landscape as it stretched to meet the horizon. In the next moment, she was dropping from 10,000 feet, reminding her senses: You are alive.

Kim couldn’t help but smile. She had made a habit of seeking these reminders throughout her 64 years on Earth. Now, as she neared the end of her life, the message seemed to come through with renewed clarity as her wish to fly through the atmosphere one last time came true, thanks to her VITAS hospice team. 

“It takes a lot of coordination, but when you have a whole team coming together, you can make anything work,” says Daily, VITAS volunteer services manager. 

To Kim, cirrhosis of the liver seemed at first like a challenge waiting to be overcome. After all, she had raised a son as a single mother, worked on a farm, and been involved in community politics—she understood perseverance. But after receiving a terminal prognosis and beginning care with VITAS, she started to focus on what she could feasibly achieve in the time that remained. 

“I’d been seeing Kim for about eight months, and one day she mentioned that she’d been skydiving in the past and wanted to do it one last time,” says Tammy, Kim’s nurse. “I went back to the office and brought it up at a team meeting, not really sure if we could do anything to help.”

At the meeting, Daily suggested that virtual reality (VR) could offer a simulated version of Kim’s desired experience without the risks associated with jumping from a plane. The VITAS team manager and physician agreed and gave Daily the go-ahead to get the ball rolling.

Daily researched VR skydiving experiences and tried out a few herself—“you really believe you’re there,” she says—before settling on one that seemed like it would be most enjoyable for Kim.

On the day of the skydive, Kim was joined by Tammy, Daily, and other members of the VITAS team in her home. One of the nurses stood ready with the fan as Kim sat down and donned an Oculus Rift VR headset. What followed was a beautiful experience for everybody.

When the time came to jump, Kim stretched her arms out before her, feeling the wind in her hair as she watched the scenic landscape rising to meet her. She called out enthusiastically to the team, pointing out the houses below.

At one point, Kim stood from her chair, ecstatic with the sheer sensation of it all. After “landing” safely on the ground, she immediately began showering the team with appreciation. 

When Tammy began her career as a hospice nurse, she had never expected a virtual skydive to be part of her patient’s plan of care—no more than Kim had expected it when she came onto hospice service with VITAS. In Kim’s smile, Tammy saw that she had succeeded in making her patient’s last wish a reality, virtual or otherwise.

“I’ve been here for 20 years. The fact that we’re all busy with multiple patients and various tasks but can still find the time to fulfill a patient’s dream…that’s just priceless, a true honor,” Daily says. 

For Kim, the experience was clearly a dream come true, but not quite a replacement for the real deal: Tammy says that her patient still jokes about skydiving—and bringing her favorite nurse along for the ride.

For more information about end-of-life care options, call VITAS Healthcare at 309.691.2381 or visit VITAS.com.

For additional inspirational and informative articles visit 50 Plus News and Views Bloomington Normal Issue online today.

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