PHOENIX - You might think virtual reality is just a pair oversized goggles that gives you access to an exciting, alternate world. But, what if virtual reality had other powers that could heal your body? That question is being answered at Banner Health's University Medicine Rehabilitation Institute right here in Arizona.
Cristina Vazquez was in school to become a nurse. But, on February 7, 2015, everything changed.
"I had a car accident. It was a t-bone," Cristina says.
She suffered a traumatic brain injury which put her in the hospital for months, barely able to open her eyes or even talk.
"I thought I wasn't going to walk ever," she says.
But, therapists at Banner's Rehabilitation Institute had different plans.
"I came here with a wheelchair and they said, oh no, homegirl, you cannot be with the wheelchair," Cristina jokes.
So, they got to work, using virtual reality to help heal Cristina's body. Specifically, the Dynovision machine is used on patients who need to retrain their visual motor coordination.
Cristina's occupational therapist, Holly Jones, explains, "it's looking at her reaction time."
At the same time, it serves as a form of speech therapy for Cristina, who tries to shout out the words she sees on the screen in front of her.
"When a patient has an injury to their brain," Holly explains, "other areas surrounding that damage can re-learn what that damaged area did."
But, that kind of therapy takes a lot of practice and a lot of repetitions, which can be extremely mundane and very frustrating for patients.
"That's where Virtual Reality comes in," Holly says. "It gives us the ability to give the patient something meaningful to do. They can visually see what's going on. They can see the movement in their affected arm. And, it gives them a score, so they know how they're doing and how they're progressing."
Cristina says, "Before, I would just look at people... ugh, I'm never going to do that."
But, with innovative, meaningful therapy, her coordination has improved, her balance is better and her legs are stronger.
"Thank God for the help, because, I don't know, without them, I'd probably still be wheelchair-chilling," Cristina laughs.
Officials at Banner Health say Cristina's story is just one of many incredible stories at the clinic showing how technology is impacting lives.
Their occupational therapists are using Virtual Reality to help a tattoo artist regain their fine motor skills necessary for his craft and assisting another patient with relearning tasks like folding laundry or swinging a golf club.
They also say there is no age-limit for the technology. They've used it for children and patients as old as 89 years old.