Locally built virtual reality tools are helping victims cope after a suspected EF4 tornado devastated part of Nashville early Tuesday morning.
“We grabbed headsets and we went to the shelters to see if individuals wanted to escape and relax,” Sarah Hill, founder of Healium, explained of the startup’s reaction to the storm that killed more than 20 people.
In Music City for a conference hosted by the International Virtual Reality Health Association, Hill and a number of her counterparts in the VR space didn’t begin to fully realize the storm’s devastation until daybreak, she noted.
“The shelter where they were sending people in the aftermath was literally a handful of blocks away from the ballroom where we were discussing these very studies about how VR can impact emotional pain [during times of disaster],” she added, detailing benefits of VR as a drugless solution to reduce stress and anxiety.
Click here to read more about Healium — one of Startland News’ Kansas City Startups to Watch in 2020 — and its impact on PTSD.
Unscathed, Hill was hunkered down in a hotel stairwell when the storm made its way through the city around 1 a.m. Tuesday.
“Not everyone in our hotel came down. It was mostly people who had either lost homes or belongings in previous tornadoes,” Hill described of the scene, recalling the loss of her home in a similar storm 15 years ago that hit Canton, Missouri.
“[We’ve done this before] so we knew that it had some benefit, but we had never done it so quickly after an event,” she said of the response by Healium and peer companies including Reno, Nevada-based C.A.R.E Channel.
“These individuals lost their homes just about 12 hours before and had come to the Centennial Sportsplex to have a place to sleep, to have a place to stay while they tried to find temporary housing,” Hill said. “We observed at first to see if — in all this chaos — are they even going is this even going to have value for them or is it just getting in the way?”
People at the emergency shelter last night told us VR made them feel “like they were somewhere else”. We watched as bodies softened and ppl started to relax and take deeper breaths. #nashvilletornado2020
— Sarah Hill (@SarahMidMO) March 4, 2020
What the companies found was that VR had tremendous value to storm victims and first responders, Hill said.
“Not only were the children able to step inside a beautiful waterfall or catch virtual snowflakes on their tongue inside a magic snowglobe, but mom also got to go to the beach for five minutes,” she said, offering a glimpse at the experience inside the Centennial Sportsplex.
“You could see their body soften. You could see their breathing slow almost as if you had put someone in a warm bath or allowed them to take a walk in the park,” Hill said. “That’s what immersive media does to people.”
Click here to read Hill’s blog about the experience.
Insurance agents, nurses, and police officers were just a few additional groups who took advantage of the Healium experience, which grew in demand as the day went on, Hill said.
“It was fascinating. … It’s valuable for us to know that VR really is mental health armor. It is mental health hygiene, it’s resilience that can allow people to self-soothe in stressful situations,” she said.
— Kevin Walters (@thekevinwalters) March 4, 2020
Beyond better understanding the medical impacts of VR, seeing the power of Healium in action was an even bigger lesson for Hill as a founder.
“It was powerful because it allows me to peer around the corner and to see how this medium can be used in an even greater way in some of these traumatic situations and it confirmed some previously held beliefs,” she said. “These kits need to be in the hands of all trauma and first responder groups.”
Hill asked that Kansas Citians do their part to show support for Nashville. Click here to learn how you can support recovery efforts led by the Red Cross.
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.