End of Life Wishes

Hospice Patient Skydives Once More, Thanks to VITAS and Virtual Reality

February 9, 2021

From the cramped cabin of the aircraft, VITAS patient Kim Potter peered out through the open door and took in the landscape as it stretched to meet the horizon, toy-size houses and trees dotting the terrain as far as she could see.

The reverie held for a second before a red light above the door frame turned green; in the next moment Kim was dropping from 10,000 feet, the hum and rattle of the plane’s engines now replaced fully by the roar of the wind as it billowed around her, buffeting her face and body and reminding her senses: You are alive.

Kim couldn’t help but smile. She had made a habit of seeking these reminders throughout her 64 years on Earth. Now, as she neared the end of her life, the message seemed to come through with renewed clarity as her wish to fly through the atmosphere one last time came true, thanks to VITAS in the Treasure Coast of Florida.

“It takes a lot of coordination, but when you have a whole team coming together, you can make anything work,” says Daily Martinez, VITAS volunteer services manager.

‘You Really Believe You’re There’

To Kim, cirrhosis of the liver seemed at first like a challenge waiting to be overcome. After all, she had raised a son as a single mother, worked on a farm, and been involved in community politics—she understood perseverance. But after receiving a terminal prognosis and beginning care with VITAS, Kim started to focus on what she could feasibly achieve in the time that remained.

“I’d been seeing Kim for about eight months, and one day she mentioned that she’d been skydiving in the past and wanted to do it one last time,” says Tammy Blackford, RN, Kim’s nurse.

Kim at home surrounded by her hospice care team members

VITAS patient Kim Potter, at center, enjoyed a skydiving experience thanks to her VITAS care team in Florida’s Treasure Coast.

“I went back to the office and brought it up at a team meeting, not really sure if we could do anything to help.”

At the meeting, Daily suggested that virtual reality (VR) could offer a simulated version of Kim’s desired experience without the risks associated with jumping from a plane. Team Manager Sherice Gordon-Rivera and Dr. Cindy Yuen agreed and gave Daily the go-ahead to get the ball rolling.

Daily researched VR skydiving experiences and tried out a few herself — “you really believe you’re there,” she says — before settling on one that seemed like it would be most enjoyable for Kim. To elevate the realism, Daily found a small fan that would simulate the wind.

All the Sensations of Flying...from a Chair

Tammy briefly assessed Kim to ensure the VR experience wouldn’t cause dizziness or otherwise agitate her. But Kim, still vocal about her willingness to take on a real skydive, wasn’t concerned about a little motion sickness.

On the day of the skydive, she joined Erin Leist, RN, Morgan Toledo, RN, and Chaplain John Thybault at Kim’s home.

What followed, Daily says, “was a beautiful experience for everybody.”

Kim stands up while wearing the virtual reality headset

The experience was so thrilling that, at one point, Kim got out of her chair.

After working through a few technical difficulties and setting up a majestic mountainous backdrop behind their patient, the team was ready to help Kim step boldly into the wild blue yonder.

Erin stood ready with the fan as Kim sat down and donned an Oculus Rift VR headset. Within minutes, she was smiling and laughing at the lifelike experience of flying in the plane.

When the time came to jump, Kim stretched her arms out before her, feeling the wind in her hair as she watched the scenic landscape rising to meet her. She called out enthusiastically to the team, pointing out the houses below.

When Tammy saw Kim’s smile, she smiled, too.

At one point, Kim stood from her chair, ecstatic with the sheer sensation of it all. After “landing” safely on the ground, she immediately began showering the team with appreciation.

“Kim absolutely loved it, and she said it was an amazing experience,” Tammy says. “She was so grateful, she kept telling everyone how thankful she was.”

When Tammy began her career as a hospice nurse, she had never expected a virtual skydive to be part of her patient’s plan of care — no more than Kim had expected it when she came onto hospice service with VITAS. In Kim’s smile, Tammy saw that she had succeeded in making her patient’s last wish a reality, virtual or otherwise.

‘To Fulfill a Patient’s Dream...That’s Just Wonderful’

Daily notes that while it’s the team’s first time working with VR, she hopes to employ the technology to facilitate virtual honor flights for local veteran patients who can’t make the trip to DC to see the nation’s war memorials in person.

“I’ve been here for 20 years. The fact that we’re all busy with multiple patients and various tasks but can still find the time to fulfill a patient's dream...that’s just priceless, a true honor,” she says.

For Kim, the experience was clearly a dream come true, but not quite a replacement for the real deal: Tammy says that her patient still jokes about skydiving in Orlando — and bringing her favorite nurse along for the ride.