Exceptional medical care provided by first responders, nurses and doctors routinely saves the lives of patients with critical illnesses. But many of these patients will suffer from anxiety, depression and PTSD upon their return home.
A team of UCF researchers is confident that virtual reality exposure therapy, with real sounds and smells, all mimicking the experiences of patients in the ICU, will help these patients — just as it has for veterans, first responders and others from UCF RESTORES Individuals treated has done a state-approved on-campus PTSD clinic.
Assistant Professor Brian Peach of the UCF College of Nursing – and an ICU nurse for the past 17 years – is leading the study of patients suffering from post-critical care syndrome, known as PICS. Studies show that PICS can affect up to 80% of patients in the ICU. About a third of intensive care patients are unable to work in the first year.
UCF Assistant Professor of Nursing Brian Peach
While there are other studies examining the effects of PICS, Peach says what makes his study unique is exposure therapy — which has proven extremely successful in first responders, military members and veterans treated at UCF RESTORES. They overcome PTSD at rates much higher than the national standard.
During treatments, patients wear a virtual reality headset and see images of a simulated hospital room while recounting the traumatic event in the presence of the therapist. The room can be customized to suit the patient’s experience, including bedding colors and whether the caregiver was male or female. The therapist also inserts sounds and smells that are triggers for that particular patient.
“Exposure therapy totally saved me,” says a 41-year-old Orlando teacher who completed the two-week treatment program. “I was in a dark place when trauma consumed me. I can still think about my hospital stay, but I don’t think about it excessively anymore and I don’t have strong feelings about it. It changed my life so much for the better.”
After suffering a heart attack, she spent weeks in intensive care. When she returned home, she had trouble falling asleep because she felt she needed to constantly check her vital signs and make sure she didn’t have to go back to the hospital. Everyday noises like lawn mowers and weed pullers reminded her of noises from her hospital room, and she couldn’t drive past a hospital without inducing great anxiety.
“UCF RESTORES’ exposure therapy program has helped more than 1,400 people with PTSD, and we are confident that their highly trained therapists will also help survivors of a critical illness regain their lives,” says Peach. “We are committed to helping survivors enjoy a good quality of life with their families and in their careers after they leave the hospital.”
Peach recruits patients who have previously been hospitalized in the ICU due to critical illness and believe they have PTSD. The study includes ten two-hour weekday sessions over two weeks. Patients, who must be at least 18 years of age, would undergo an initial screening for PTSD at UCF RESTORES to determine if they qualify. Attendees who qualify will be eligible for two $100 Wawa gift cards to help cover travel expenses. Patients wishing to be considered for the study should contact Peach at [email protected] or 407-823-5460.
According to Peach, patients on ventilators in the hospital are more susceptible to PTSD and anxiety, both during the hospital stay and after they return home. Interventions that can help reduce PTSD and anxiety in hospital intensive care units include weaning patients off ventilators more quickly when possible, getting up and moving around when they can, and having family members present to provide support and can deal with them.
Peach has an ongoing study enrolling Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) survivors who were on a ventilator in the ICU. This study has found moderate to high rates of PTSD in most of the 25 patients enrolled to date. Common triggers for anxiety and flashbacks include visiting hospitals and healthcare equipment such as wheelchairs, stretchers, and gloves; medical television shows; see or hear helicopters; loud beeping noises similar to those of machines in the intensive care unit; the odors of bleach and other cleaning products; and seeing or touching medical scars. While ARDS is a risk factor for PICS, Peach wants to help a wider variety of patients who have suffered a critical illness.
The virtual reality software used in exposure therapy was developed by UCF RESTORES with help from the UCF School of Modeling, Simulation and Training and the Nicholson School of Communication with a $3 million US Department of Defense grant. The software allows therapists to customize treatments with patient-specific images.
“So many veterans, first responders and military members thrive in their careers and family lives after completing our innovative exposure therapy,” said Deborah Beidel, Chair of the Trustees, Pegasus Professor of Psychology and Executive Director of UCF RESTORES. “We are excited to be able to adapt our program to help patients with critical illness overcome their trauma and live fulfilling lives.”