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After accident leaves him paralyzed, retired teacher Bob Jester battles his chronic pain with virtual reality

Bob Jester takes a virtual walk around the Grand Canyon. Photo: Katharine Schroeder

The pain, Bob Jester says, is beyond anything he’d ever imagined.

“If I had to tell you what it feels like, I can only say it’s like being on fire. On fire deep inside.”

It was August 8, 2016 when the retired Riverhead High School science teacher and professional chimney sweep, who lives in Greenport, fell from a ladder propped up against the side of a house in Southold and broke 19 bones.

“I landed flat on my back on a concrete slab,” he recalls. “I knew right away it was bad; I had no feeling below the waist. The pain didn’t come on for two or three minutes but then it became excruciating. I never lost consciousness and the pain was so bad I couldn’t see anything. All I saw was white and all I felt was pain.”

Jester was airlifted to Stony Brook University Hospital where surgeons worked through the night inserting two rods and 16 bolts to repair his badly broken back. A week later he was transferred to Rusk Rehabilitation Institute in Manhattan where he stayed for three weeks of physical and occupational therapy until he was transferred to Peconic Landing, where he stayed for a month.

While in the hospital Jester was given morphine and Oxycodone, an opiod medication, to manage the pain.

Although the Oxycodone gave him relief and allowed him to sleep, Jester was very concerned; he knew how easy it would be to become dependent on the medication.

“I’ve seen how opioids have affected people that were innocently taking it for pain and become addicted. It’s hideous. I didn’t want to be one of those people.”

And he just didn’t feel like himself when he took the medication, he says.

“I became someone that wasn’t me. My sense of humor, something that had always kept me floating in life, deadened. So I battled with myself to take less and less medication, fighting the pain all the time.”

Bob Jester at his home in Greenport. Photo: Katharine Schroeder

Now wheelchair bound and in constant pain, Jester experienced what he calls his “dark days.”

“Given the choice, I could have shut the whole party off in a hurry during those first six months,” he says. “It was hard.”

For people suffering from intense chronic pain, mental health is an important concern, says Jester. “You can’t believe how being in constant pain changes you.”

Jester credits his family and friends with keeping him going; he refers to them as his “weapons.” And surprisingly to Jester, one of his greatest weapons has been Facebook.

“I never liked Facebook very much, but then I started to hear from hundreds of my former students. Some I hadn’t heard from in years, but I remember all of them,” he says. “They really keep my spirits up.”

Through the years Jester always told his students and his own children that it’s how you deal with the bad times in life, the dark days in life, that defines who you are.

During the many times Jester was losing hope or wanted to give up, he reminded himself of his own advice.

“These are my dark days, these are really dark days but there are people who are watching,” he says. “I can’t let my children down. I can’t let my former students down. I can’t be a hypocrite.”

So Jester forged ahead, receiving intense physical therapy and waging a daily battle against pain.

Across town, a man named Bob McInnis, a man whose son Jester had tutored in science for several years, stumbled upon some information about AppliedVR, a company that was using virtual reality – three dimensional computer generated environments that a person can become immersed in – for pain management. He immediately thought of Jester.

McInnis contacted AppliedVR asking if there was anything they could do to help Jester and his email landed on the desk of Mathieu Wauters, director of sales.

“I spoke with Bob McInnis and he told me all about Bob Jester,” says Wauters. “He said Bob was a hero in his community, an incredible teacher and someone who was always doing things for others. He wanted to do something for Bob to help relieve his pain.”

It was hard to say no, Wauters recalls.

“How could we refuse a hero in need, especially a former science teacher, someone who could potentially help make our product better with his feedback?”

Wauters immediately sent Jester a mobile headset complete with a smart phone and gave him access to content. The phone, which fits into the headset, plays the virtual reality apps and the user sees a three-dimensional world right in front of him. It is realistic enough to convince a viewer that they are somewhere else and serves as a distraction from pain and anxiety.

Wauters wondered what effect the system would have on Jester since he was older than a lot of patients they’d used it with and his pain was intense and chronic.

“We are confident in our product,” says Wauters, “but every situation is different.”

AppliedVR had been using the technology on patients with great success to reduce anxiety before or after surgery, on burn victims during treatments and on pediatric patients during cast removal or IV insertion. Wauters was eager to see how it might help Jester.

Once he received the headset, the curious and open-minded Jester dove right in.

“The first time I tried it I was sitting in my chair and I had my dinner in front of me. I was looking at farm animals and a cow came up to lick me and I shooed the cow away and knocked my dinner all over the living room,” he says, laughing.

Jester was hooked.

A scene from the farm sanctuary virtual reality experience. Courtesy photo: AppliedVR

“I fly with the Wright brothers, tour Machu Pichu and explore the moon with the Apollo 15 crew,” he says. “Well, I accidentally crashed the lunar rover twice, but…”

When AppliedVR sent Jester the system, they did so with no obligation.

“All they said to me was that they wanted me to answer one question: Did it help?” says Jester.

But once a science teacher, always a science teacher, and Jester began keeping a journal of his usage of the VR, his dosage of pain medication and how he felt.

He found that while using the VR, his pain was lessened and the effect lasted for several hours. He was able to recall the VR experience and in doing so, the pain was kept at bay.

Gradually Jester was able to reduce his pain medication from 60 mg to zero.

“Over the past five weeks I haven’t had one pill,” he says. “I don’t even keep them in the house anymore; I used up my last pill and won’t renew the prescription.”

Bob Jester at his home in Greenport. Photo: Katharine Schroeder

Now, Jester uses only two methods of pain relief. One is the VR and the other is a more unusual approach.

“It might sound crazy, but every time the pain gets really bad I ask myself who I would give this pain to rather than have it myself. My wife, my sister, my brother-in-law, my children- of those, who would I give this pain to? And I say thank you that it’s me that has the pain and not them. And then it all goes away and I can take it a little better. That’s helped me a lot.”

Wauters was so thrilled with Jester’s progress he arranged to visit with him at his Greenport home. He brought along a video crew who interviewed Jester and his wife, Diane. He even accompanied Jester to his physical therapy session at Peconic Landing.

“He is such an inspiration,” says Wauters. “When he told me that someday he was going to walk out of Peconic Landing, I got all choked up. But I believed him.”

Jester hopes that his experience with virtual reality can lead others in a direction that will help alleviate their pain and anxiety.

“Personally, one of my favorites is flying with the Wright brothers,” he says. “But there are thousands of different experiences available. You can tour Machu Pichu, swim with the dolphins, throw snowballs at little bears or do a guided meditation.”

Scene from the Wright brothers VR experience. Courtesy photo: AppliedVR

Jester is excited for the future of this technology and imagines how he would have used it in his own classroom.

“There’s one program where you become the size of a human blood cell and take a tour of the body,” he says. “It would be so great to have that when you’re teaching biology; these kids would be into it like you couldn’t believe!”

Jester continues to make steady progress on his rehabilitation and he has regained some movement in his legs. His friend, a retired doctor Jester refers to as “a saint” told him that pain sometimes is good; it’s an indication that things are coming along.

“When I first had the accident I could move these legs only a little,” says Jester. “But I’m getting to the point where I’ve got more movement. There is some hope. I’m hoping that all this pain is a good sign and I’m telling you that I intend to walk again.”

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