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State-Of-The-Art Virtual Reality Easing Patients' Nerves Ahead Of High-Risk Brain Surgery

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- You may have seen those high-tech virtual reality headsets that can take you on lifelike tours of far flung destinations, but what if they could take you on a tour of your own brain?

As CBS2's Dr. Max Gomez reported, its making brain surgery safer and less anxiety inducing for patients. Doctors are using VR to limit stress and in some cases, rehearse their operation.

The technology looks like the kind of animation you may see in a movie or medical show recreating a fictional brain injury or neurosurgery, but in this case it's real.

At least, it's virtually real. Dr. Thomas Steineke was able to show patient Bonnie Haber a benign tumor in her brain, where it's growing, and how he's going to remove it.

Haber says it all began about a year-and-a-half ago.

"I suddenly got extremely dizzy, like the whole room was spinning like a ceiling fan," she said.

Her symptoms led to a CAT scan and then quickly to a consultation with Steineke, the Chief of Neurosurgery at the JFK Neuroscience Institute in Edison, New Jersey. He told her she needed brain surgery to remove a tumor.

"I'm just dizzy, why do you need to cut my head open?," Haber asked.

It's a question Steineke hears often, especially when all he had to show a patient was black and white brain scans. It's something a trained eye can interpret, but to a patient their tumor just looks like a white blob, according to Steineke.

That's where the new VR system comes into play. The reconstruction from special M-Brain scans allows Steineke to show a patient exactly the what, where, and why of their problem.

It goes a long way in easing patients' anxiety.

"I felt much more secure, I understood more," Haber said.

Better yet, the VR system allows a doctor to better plan the surgery.

"I can actually rehearse the operation, it makes it faster and safer," Steineke said.

18-months-later, Bonnie is back to work and exercising -- she's even kickboxing!

For some patients, the VR can be too real. It can be a bit disturbing seeing a tumor or aneurysm, knowing that's what's growing inside your brain. For most, though, the understanding and engagement in their own case makes a big difference.

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