‘The future is here’: How virtual reality at U of M helped save woman with brain cancer

How virtual reality at U of M helped save woman with brain cancer

How virtual reality at U of M helped save woman with brain cancer

Doctors at the University of Minnesota are utilizing new technology to not only explore the human brain, but also to aid in surgeries.

5 EYEWITNESS NEWS first reported on the technology at last year’s Minnesota State Fair. Back then, Dr. Clark Chen, the head of neurosurgery at the U of M’s medical school, demonstrated the virtual reality technology the university is using from a company called Surgical Theater.

By putting on a virtual reality headset, Chen is able to see a full-color, three-dimensional, 360-degree look at a patient’s brain.

In October, 75-year-old Karen Koprivec was suffering from a fast-growing, aggressive brain tumor, known as glioblastoma. It was causing her to have seizures and weakness on her right side.

Koprivec came to the U of M for surgery to remove the tumor and became one of the first patients at the university to have brain surgery using that virtual reality technology that Chen demonstrated at the fair. She allowed 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS to tell her story.

“I’m hoping, you know, I want to be able to help other people,” she said before her surgery.

Before the surgery, Chen was able to prepare Koprivec for what was ahead by showing her what’s inside her head. She saw exactly where her tumor was, its size and Chen’s plan for surgery.

“If you look over here, this is your tumor right here,” Chen said. “See this, where the blood converts with green stuff? That’s your tumor, and there’s a fluid collection right in front of it . . . Which means that gives me a space to work.”

“It’s like you’re practicing before you even open me up,” Koprivec said.

“Yep, and this is what, you know, what a good surgeon does before walking into the operating room is that he or she rehearses the surgery . . . The success of the surgery is determined before the surgeon walks in, and that’s why this technology is really, really helpful,” Chen said. “You don’t want to be making it up as you go into the operating room.”

Chen says there’s actually research that shows informed and confident patients who undergo surgery have less anxiety and better outcomes.

“I don’t think modern medicine places enough emphasis on the mind-body interface . . . I think that walking into the surgery with optimism, with hope, fundamentally changes the trajectory of the patient’s health care journey,” he said.

“I’m excited to get it over with and to have him perform the surgery,” Koprivec said. “And the encouragement he’s given me, knowing he’s already reviewed what he’s going to do, that he’s had a practice run already, and I feel very reassured.”

Koprivec had her operation two days later. Though she had an unexpected seizure after her surgery, which required another procedure, Chen said the initial surgery went as planned because of the rehearsal. After surgery, she went home to the care of loved ones.

Months passed as she healed. In May, Koprivec stopped by 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS and shared the wonderful news: she’s cancer-free.

When asked if she believes the virtual reality technology saved her life, Koprivec replied, “Yes, I do. I actually do.”

“There’s a few little bumps in the road here that I’m experiencing but I still feel the surgery itself was a complete success,” she added.

“No regrets. I think that frankly, if we had not taken this tumor out, she would likely not have lived,” Chen said.

The virtual reality technology didn’t just give Koprivec optimism heading into surgery, it’s also giving doctors optimism that it will lead to better medical results.

“The technology is going to allow us to maximize our potential as surgeons . . . The future is here, and there’s a lot more to come,” Chen said.

The University of Minnesota is the only place in the state using Surgical Theater’s virtual reality technology for brain surgery, and only 25 other sites in the country do so.

Chen said the university’s medical school is also using the technology to help teach future surgeons.