Doctors use virtual reality program to prepare for brain surgeries

BY Briana Vannozzi, Senior Correspondent |

Fifty-nine-year-old Bonnie Haber found herself in the same shoes as tens of thousands of other Americans each year with an unfathomable diagnosis and an intimidating surgery. Haber’s tumor wasn’t cancerous, but its location near her optic nerve meant they had to act fast.

“That’s the brain tumor, that’s the meningioma and the grey area here is your brain. See how it’s pushing over in your brain here?” said Dr. Thomas Steineke, chairman of Hackensack Meridian Health JFK Neuroscience Institute.

“When he showed me the regular MRI, he said this is your brain tumor, and it has to come out. And again, not understand — why? If my only symptom is that I’m going to be dizzy every now and then, I can live with that without you having to cut my head open. I have no medical problems otherwise, I’m healthy. Then he showed me the virtual reality, and it helped me to understand,” Haber said.

It’s a cutting-edge concept for the medical world. Before slipping on a hospital gown, patients and surgeons at Hackensack Meridian Health JFK Neuroscience Institute slip on virtual reality goggles to fly through the brain, preparing for the procedure.

“It allows us to better understand the anatomy and better plan the operations. Routinely, I’ll change something about my operation because of what I’ve seen with the virtual reality. And it just makes my operation a little more precise and, frankly, a little safer,” said Steineke.

JFK is the first and only hospital in the state to use Precision VR Surgical Theater. Since it arrived exactly one year ago, Steineke says this has become his go-to tool for complex neurosurgery. He’s used it on 82 patients so far.

“I was actually able to rehearse the operation, remove the bone that I needed to, and it made me more efficient during the operation and, frankly, I think it made it safer because I was able to predict what anatomy that I would encounter along the way,” Steineke said.

Steineke can manipulate and rotate the lobes and tissue, engaging patients in their care plan before ever entering the OR. It comes at a cost — hospitals pay upwards of $10,000 per unit for the VR. Haber says she’s grateful for the option — the process eased her worries.

“To me the difference between the little white spot on the MRI — the original image — versus that big, green hideous lump, it did make a difference to me,” Haber said.

And doctors say the future is limitless with virtual and augmented reality. It means better training, less invasive operations, and ultimately, faster recovery.