Erica Thayer   |   December 18, 2018

Saving Lives with Virtual Reality


Unfamiliar Territory

Imagine you are driving down an unfamiliar road. It’s dark and the asphalt is slick with rain. You can only see as far as the reach of your headlights. You’re cautious; definitely driving slower. Your full attention is on each new turn as it pops into view. If you take a turn too fast you can easily end up off the road in the ravine.

Now if that same switchback road was the road leading up to your house it would be different, right? Each curve and pothole would be familiar. You’d know just where to slow down and just how sharply to turn to stay safe. When the sight distance is low and the stakes are high I’d much rather be in familiar territory!

Since the 1980s doctors and researchers have been working to make the heart familiar territory before surgery. Advancements like echocardiography, CT imaging, and now 3D printing all provide vital information about structure and blood flow. For the 40,000 babies born each year with Congenital Heart Disease, this information is invaluable before heart surgery.

No two hearts are exactly the same in the world of CHD. Complex heart defects can can sometimes present a “surprise” in the operating room. It can be hard to fully visualize the tiny, abnormal structures beforehand. Even 3D printing has its disadvantages. Every new viewpoint or “slice” through the heart that you want to see has to be printed separately. One print may take anywhere from 10-20 hours to complete and then it must be cured, and then finished.


“The next step is to use virtual reality to actually move inside the heart and really see those surgical pathways.”

So, is there a better way?

Ok gamers, step aside. Virtual Reality has now entered the healthcare space. Industries from retail to architecture are fully utilizing virtual reality to influence how they develop products and provide services. Of all uses, VR has the potential to most greatly impact sick patients.

Currently, surgeons use a combination of echocardiograms, CT/MRI imaging, and in some institutions, 3D printing to visualize the heart before surgery. “The next step,” says Dr. David Parra, pediatric cardiologist at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, “for what we would like to be able to do is use virtual reality to actually move inside the heart and really see those surgical pathways.” This type of visualization would be life-saving. All the sharp turns and potholes would be revealed. Less surprises in the OR means better outcomes.


Project Heart goes tech-savvy

Project Heart is currently in the process of developing a Virtual Reality app that will take regular CT images and turn them into 3D models for doctors to view using an Oculus Rift VR headset. The CT image can be converted in a matter of seconds and the Oculus Rift headset is widely available at a relatively low cost. This innovative app will be easy to access and low cost for heart hospitals across the nation.

Our team is currently working with Dr. David Parra and Dr. Jon Soslowboth pediatric cardiologists at Vanderbiltto develop the app to suit the specific needs of cardiologists who specialize in congenital heart disease. The Children’s Hospital will then beta test the app and provide feedback to continue to develop its functionality. The app and equipment will then be introduced to top heart hospitals all over the country.

To make this app a reality we need your help!


Help us fully fund this project by December 31st!

  1. Nina Hess ollis   |   February 22, 2019

    As a grown up of 62 years old I was born with a congenital heart defect @ the age of 3 months old I had open heart surgery at Vanderbilt Hospital . I believe the surgeon was Dr.Scott and one other great surgeon. I had a patent ductus done.

Leave a Comment Below

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *