STREETERVILLE — Like many teenagers this spring, Mary Berry went to prom.
The 14-year-old from suburban Ford Heights didn't search long for a dress. Instead, dresses and makeup were brought to Berry's room at Lurie Children's Hospital, where she undergoes treatment for sickle cell anemia.
But sickle cell-driven back pain forced Berry to forego wearing a dress in favor of a T-shirt to Lurie's prom, the fourth the children's hospital has hosted for young people too sick to go to their school's dance. Many patients have to bring a nurse as their date, and for some kids, it's the only prom they'll ever attend.
The circumstances aren't lost on Lurie's teenage patients, many of whom long to be with their friends for such an occasion. But Lurie introduced a new icebreaker this year: a room with virtual reality headsets where patients could write each other messages on a digital chalkboard, or — in Berry's case — just "scribble scrabble."
"It was fun, it was fantastic. It was the funnest thing I've ever been to here," Berry said. "I had pain before the prom ... this made you not focus on the situation."
The virtual reality designed by Midwest Immersive is the latest effort by Lurie to make their prom special for the few dozen teenage patients who attend every year.
School dances can be awkward for anybody, especially when they're strangers. Goggles that take patients somewhere else can be a nice diversion, Lurie officials said.
"It's a way to sort of ease into the space," said Rebecca Meyers, children's services manager at the hospital, 225 E. Chicago Ave. "They seemed less self-conscious. They could enter into virtual reality a little easier than on the dance floor."
"It gives them an escape from what is currently going on in their lives," said Maria Minjares, Lurie's Network TV Production Coordinator, who helped bring virtual reality to the prom.
Patients dance the night away at Lurie Children's prom. [Facebook photos/Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital]
Prom highlights have since been posted to social media, and a video showcasing the virtual reality was loaded to YouTube last week. Lurie, which has also set up jewelry booths and sock/tie bars at prom for patients, might play with "lightmapping" video projections next year, Minjares said.
"The night is a very special night," she said. "It's become a sense of community."