Harbaugh Fund Helps Mott Patients Virtually Experience the Big House

November 29, 2016 7:00 AM

A newly established charitable effort supports a high-tech project giving kids “out-of-hospital” experiences with virtual reality.


Holding a maize and blue box up to his eyes, patient David Hicks was instantly transported from University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital to Michigan Stadium.

“We’re going through the tunnel with the football team. Now I’m on the field. There’s the band. OK, that’s cool,” said the 17-year-old, twisting his head around to get the full 360-degree experience of what the largest college football stadium in the United States looks and sounds like on game day.    

Hicks was experiencing the Big House through virtual reality viewers funded by the foundation named after Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh.

“Visiting” the stadium is just one of the many types of experiences made possible by the new Harbaugh Fund announced for U-M’s third annual Giving Blueday — a fundraiser for campus and health system programs held on the globally recognized Giving Tuesday following Black Friday.

Make a Difference: Contribute to The Harbaugh Fund for kids at Mott

Created by a $50,000 seed donation from the Jim Harbaugh Foundation, the new fund will support activities led by the hospital’s Child and Family Life team. The fund, which is intended to grow over time, has already inspired $50,000 in additional gifts from other donors.

The first project supported by the new fund: providing virtual reality viewers for every young patient.

The cardboard viewers work by sliding in a smartphone and turning on virtual reality apps through the phone. Kids are encouraged to try many experiences that include hanging out with dinosaurs, swimming with sharks or even visiting Paris or the moon. 

Through the Michigan Virtual Reality app created by University of Michigan Athletics last year, young patients also can follow the Wolverines through the tunnel and into Michigan Stadium, mingle with the band and cheerleaders and even join the team in the locker room for a pep talk from Harbaugh himself.

“The possibilities are endless,” says J.J. Bouchard, a certified child life specialist and patient technology coordinator at Mott. “New virtual reality apps are being developed every day that let kids visit faraway places, see extinct animals and even go to space. The viewers are a fantastic new tool that make it easier for kids to have these ‘out-of-hospital’ experiences.”

J.J. Bouchard child life specialist at C.S. Mott
"For kids who are stuck in a hospital room or have physical limitations ... virtual-world experiences can really enhance their therapy."
J.J. Bouchard
Child Life Specialist and Patient Technology Coordinator

Much-needed respite

Supplying the high-tech diversion provides yet another way for the hospital to help kids feel more at ease.

SEE ALSO: Pokemon Go Makes Mott ‘More of a Magical Place’ for Patients

“The Jim Harbaugh Foundation is thrilled to support the Child and Family Life team at Mott Children’s,” says Sarah Harbaugh, who along with her husband, Jim, is a co-chair of the Victors for Michigan National Campaign Leadership Council for Mott and Von Voigtlander Hospital.

“We are so inspired by the stories of Little Victors fighting such courageous battles every day. Programs run by the Child Life staff are critical to bringing a sense of normalcy for children and their families.”

Hicks, who is being treated for cancer, is among Mott patients grateful for the chance to momentarily “escape” hospital life via the viewers.

“These are the types of things that help you get through your time here,” Hicks says. “It keeps your mind off of the hard times you’re going through.”

That reflects the ongoing mission of the Child and Family Life team at Mott, whose trained professionals work with doctors, nurses and social workers to lessen fear and isolation experienced by children facing hospitalization and chronic or life-threatening illnesses. Services include music therapy, activity centers, procedure preparation, sibling programs, art therapy and an in-hospital school program.

“Our team is constantly looking for fun and engaging opportunities that help connect families to the outside world and offer respite from hospital life,” says Daniel Fischer, director of the Child and Family Life Department at Mott.

“We are thankful to the Jim Harbaugh Foundation for supporting programs that help reduce anxiety and stress for children and families and make them feel as comfortable as possible while here.”

“A whole new way of engaging”

The cardboard viewers aren’t the only way digital technology supports healing at Mott. The hospital has also installed Xbox gaming consoles in every patient room and offered diverse virtual and augmented reality programs in the past year.

Among them: volunteers from Ann Arbor-based GameStart, who bring cutting-edge Oculus Rift headsets to Mott that allow young patients to experience roller coasters, submarines and other virtual worlds.

Physical and occupational therapists have also used augmented reality books created by Ann Arbor company SpellBound to help kids in rehab as they relearn functions like pointing and talking. The SpellBound app is used with smartphone or iPad cameras to make the characters in the books appear to pop off pages and interact with the reader, making rehab more enjoyable and fun for young patients.

“The new technology has really opened our eyes to a whole new way of engaging with and serving our patients,” says Bouchard. “For kids who are stuck in a hospital room or have physical limitations that prevent them from doing some of these activities in real life, virtual-world experiences can really enhance their therapy. We can’t wait to see what’s next.”