scorecardresearch Skip to main content

My brush with (virtual) death



As a journalist, you have a chance to do some interesting things for stories. Over the years, I’ve jumped out of a plane, driven a race car, toured the bowels of a nuclear plant, and kayaked the Kennebec Gorge.

But this week was the first time I’d ever had a brush with death, virtually or otherwise.

I suspect that on a subconscious level, most of us feel a little like the writer William Saroyan, who, days before his own passing, said this: “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?”


Who knows? But for a hint, you can don a video headset with earpieces — and quickly find yourself immersed in a three-dimensional virtual-reality experience. You are Clay Crowder, a 66-year-old veteran in the last stages of a battle with terminal lung cancer.

Your family is there. There’s some discussion among them and the hospice nurse as you lie there in your bedroom. Your hands and arms are mottled, your vision occluded. The nurse tries to make you more comfortable by adjusting a pillow, then informs your family your final moments are near. Your wife tells you it’s OK for you to go.

The room fades as your eyes close, though you can still hear.

And then you’re above it all, looking down at those gathered near your bed.

Like the blue heron you see flying from the room, the last bit may be somewhat fanciful, but overall, the virtual reality experience is a careful attempt to impart a sense of what it’s like to die.

An earlier part of the experience features a conversation in which your doctor delivers bad news: Your treatment hasn’t worked, the cancer has spread — and you only have four to six months to live.


It’s a difficult experience at some points; behind the mask, I found myself feeling awfully sorry for my dying doppelganger, which is to say, for myself. And it’s jarring at other times, such as when family members discuss your condition, and bodily functions, almost as though you weren’t there. At other points, there’s a chance to speak to your caregivers about how to make the best of the time you have left. (No chance to offer last words, but if there were, I suspect mine would be: Marcia, have you seen my cell phone anywhere?)

The end-of-life experience was developed by Embodied Labs, a California company that uses virtual reality to improve health care for older patients, after a research stay at Gosnell Memorial Hospice House in Scarborough, and with help and advice from Marilyn Gugliucci, director of Geriatrics Education and Research at the University of New England’s medical school.

It’s an attempt to make death more familiar and thus less frightening, and to render end-of-life discussions easier. As such, it’s become a teaching tool for UNE’s medical school and part of the training for hospice nurses and staff.

Watch a video of the experience

“We will use it to help our staff see the process from beginning to end,” says Daryl Cady, CEO of Hospice of Southern Maine, which owns Gosnell, southern Maine’s only inpatient hospice facility. And indeed, hospice nurse Kate Henderson says that the immersion experience gave her a fuller understanding of the discussions that lead to a decision to end treatment and enter hospice.


“I thought it did a really great job of explaining what hospice is,” adds Selina Bowler, a second-year UNE medical student who just completed a 48-hour hospice-immersion program at Gosnell.

As part of the effort to remove some of the dread of death, Hospice of Southern Maine will begin making the virtual experience available to the public, either individually or in groups, in the spring. Gugliucci will speak about virtual-reality training for health care and human-services professionals at UNE’s annual Maine Geriatrics Conference in June.

Am I glad I took part in the virtual reality exercise? Yes. It was eye-opening (and eye-closing), something I’ll think about for weeks.

That said, I hope some decades pass before I experience anything like it again.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.