PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Virtual reality headsets aren’t just for playing video games. At Oregon Health & Science University’s Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, doctors are using the technology to better understand pediatric heart defects. 

Using an immersive virtual reality program developed by Lighthaus Inc., students, surgeons and echocardiologists are able to study some of the most complex congenital heart defects and learn how to operate on them. 

Students can strap on a headset, pick up the hand controllers and virtually step inside hearts with a wide variety of defects. 

“I grew up playing video games and this seems like a natural progression for me, taking those skills and passions and applying it to my profession,” said Jeremiah Moore, an echocardiographer at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. 

As an echocardiographer, Moore specializes in taking 2D or 3D images of patients’ hearts. This new virtual reality, which the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford University shared with OHSU in January 2023, has opened new doors when it comes to teaching pediatric cardiology students about the heart. 

Students can virtually hold onto a heart, slice into it, and see up-close where a hole is or where oxygenated blood is mixing with deoxygenated blood. 

The virtual reality program walks them through surgery, showing them where to cut, apply patches and sew stitches. 

The virtual hearts they practice on are examples, not the hearts of their actual patients, but Moore believes it will one day be possible to create a “digital twin” of a patient’s heart that doctors could look at with this interactive technology. 

His ultimate goal would be to collect imagery of a patient’s heart, clean it up and be able to digitally produce a virtual rendering of it, allowing surgeons to do everything the Stanford Virtual Heart program lets them do – but on a digital twin of their actual patient’s heart. 

“It’s a big challenge. I know what I signed up for, but I also really enjoy that stuff. Like, I’m the kind of person that wants to look at all the options on my computer and see what I can mess with and try to make stuff work,” Moore said. 

While the technology isn’t ready to achieve Moore’s ultimate goal, the digital twin hearts are already being used in the hospital in other ways. 

Doctors can use imagery collected from CT scans or MRIs to create an interactive digital twin that they can rotate, open and examine. While this digital twin of the heart isn’t available to view with the virtual reality headset yet, surgeons can still look at the heart’s anatomy on the computer screen and virtually perform surgery on it to get an idea of what they’ll do during an actual surgery. 

Dr. Michael Silberbach looks at a "digital twin" of a patient's heart on his computer. The digital replicas researchers create of hearts allow doctors and students to see them from all angles. They can even see how blood is pumped through the heart. Photo taken May 18, 2023. (Amanda Arden/KOIN)
Dr. Michael Silberbach looks at a “digital twin” of a patient’s heart on his computer. The digital replicas researchers create of hearts allow doctors and students to see them from all angles. They can even see how blood is pumped through the heart. Photo taken May 18, 2023. (Amanda Arden/KOIN)

“These are operations that could take a really long time so we’re able to shorten the time of the operation and decrease the risks of the operations,” explained Dr. Michael Silberbach, a pediatric cardiology professor at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. 

These digital renderings of patients’ hearts can also be printed using a 3D printer. These models give surgeons an even better understanding of the anatomy of a patient’s heart. 

The 3D-printed heart is also something doctors can let their patients and their patients’ parents hold to better understand heart defects. 

“I think it’s the unknown that’s the most frightening. So, when they have a better understanding, I think they have a lot more confidence in what they’re facing,” Silberbach said about how kids react when he hands them a model of their heart. 

In the not-so-distant future, Silberbach believes 3D printing, like what he’s doing to create models of patients’ hearts, could be used to print aortic valves that could be surgically placed in patients. 

While the Stanford Virtual Heart program is new to Doernbecher Children’s Hospital this year, Silberbach said he’s been working with 3D printed hearts since he received a grant in 2014. He’s since upgraded his 3D printer to a newer version and the program has been growing since then. 

A year from now, Moore said he’d like to start using the Stanford Virtual Heart program in consultations with patients and their families. Like the 3D printed models of hearts, he believes the virtual reality technology will help families better understand the disease or defect their child has. 

The hospital also uses the Fetal Heart VR program to simulate fetal heart scanning, or scanning a baby’s heart while they’re still inside the womb. Moore believes sharing this with parents during consultations would also be helpful. 

During the summer of 2023, Moore is taking the virtual reality program to Doernbecher’s summer camp for kids with congenital heart defects, hoping it will engage them and help them learn more about what’s going on inside their bodies. 

“I think it’s just really accessible for that generation because a lot of them are already familiar with VR and comfortable with it,” Moore said. 

In its first five months at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, the virtual reality program has been well received and Moore and Silberbach both look forward to the various ways it can be used in the future.