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How immersive technology became a Veteran’s dying wish

Immersive technology gave one Veteran a last chance to experience his homeland.

Mr. Tito, an Army Vietnam Veteran and Virgin Islands native, lived in the Phoenix VA Health Care System Community Living Center (CLC) for four years. Known as the center’s social butterfly, he brought joy to the residents and staff through song, story and accolades about his favorite meal—chicken wings.

The IT guy

During those years, he bonded with “the IT guy” Jonathan Tang, a 13-year recreational therapist. Tang’s loyalty to Mr. Tito and the center’s other inhabitants came from the desire to deliver the same level of care his Veteran father and brother may one day need.

The CLC houses up to 10 Veterans seeking long-term, short-term, palliative or hospice care. The facility creates a home-like environment for Veterans with staff holding true to the mantra: “They do not live in our workplace. We work in their homes.”

As a recreational therapist, Tang’s operations vary from day-to-day but can include anything from aiding Veterans with fitness to organizing social events. It’s his dedication to keeping his patients up to date with technology that earned him the nickname, “the IT guy.”

Tang says it started when Veterans struggled with smart phones becoming buttonless. During COVID, it progressed to tablets.

“Imagine being in hospice and you are used to seeing your wife, your husband or your family members and now you are being told you can’t have visitors. It broke my heart. Luckily, we were able to raise enough money and donations to buy every Veteran a tablet,” Tang said.

“I have never felt closer to home than I was just now.”

Tang signed the clinic up to participate in a virtual reality (VR) pilot. His first participant was Mr. Tito, who had been told by his health care team that his condition was terminal.

“He said, ‘The one thing I can’t believe is that I am never going back to my hometown again. I was hoping to go to the Virgin Islands one more time’,” Tang said.

Tang set up the headset to take Mr. Tito on a 360-degree tour of the Virgin Islands with his favorite tunes playing in the background. Mr. Tito enjoyed his VR experience and he started to relax and sing along to the music.

“At the end, he took the headset off and said, ‘I have never felt closer to home than I was just now.’ He then asked me, when that day comes and he is going away, can I put this over his face again and let him fly over the Virgin Islands as he is passing away. What do you say to that? I told him I would do my best.”

Mr. Tito passed away shortly after his virtual trip home.

Tang said Mr. Tito’s response to the headset solidified his commitment to VR and refueled his passion for technology. He hopes he can continue to advocate for the tool especially with elderly Veterans.

To learn more about how VA Immersive is leading the nation in the clinical implementation of immersive technology, visit the VA Immersive website.

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