KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Most people get a little anxious before they have surgery, especially kids. Anti-anxiety medications can help, but one anesthesiologist in California has come up with an alternative that's safer and cheaper. And as reporter Jenny Gold reports, it's more fun, too.
JENNY GOLD, BYLINE: Matthew Husby has been sick since he was born.
MATTHEW: My colon doesn't work, and it has a lot of gas in there that it can't get out, so then it starts hurting.
GOLD: He has a rare genetic illness, and at the age of 10, he's already had anesthesia dozens of times. He's used to it now, but even this surgical pro still gets some butterflies. His mom, Cullen Husby, says when he was younger, the experience was terrifying.
CULLEN HUSBY: I think it feels really closed in. And when you're getting a mask put on you and then people all standing all around - and then he would shake and cry and scream.
GOLD: That's pretty common, and it can be dangerous. Crying increases the risk kids will inhale something into their lungs during anesthesia. Anxiety can also cause long term psychological wounds and a more painful recovery from surgery. Dr. Sam Rodriguez is an anesthesiologist at the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford.
SAM RODRIGUEZ: For many families and kids, this is one of the most stressful events in their entire lives.
GOLD: Increasingly, hospitals are turning to solutions other than anti-anxiety meds to help kids relax - things like letting kids decorate their anesthesia masks with stickers, playing doctor with their stuffed animals and telling jokes.
RODRIGUEZ: What's the difference between a snowman and a snow woman?
RODRIGUEZ: Snowballs. Correct. That's for our older patients.
GOLD: Rodriguez had another idea - distract these tech-savvy young kids with a movie right in front of their eyes.
RODRIGUEZ: We have a projection unit that is mounted on the bed, along with a projection screen that is infection-control-compliant, which took us a very long time to design.
GOLD: Rodriguez calls it BERT, short for bedside entertainment theater. It looks high-tech, but he and a coworker actually made it in his basement for about $900. Today, Matthew Husby gets to try one out. Rodriguez visits Matthew in his pre-op room, wearing a Spiderman surgical cap.
RODRIGUEZ: Matthew, we meet again. Are you going by Matthew or Matt?
GOLD: Matthew is excited to pick his own video. He's got lots to choose from - action, sports, cartoons, music videos.
RODRIGUEZ: So which category?
MATTHEW: Cartoon Disney.
RODRIGUEZ: Cartoon Disney category. Perfect.
GOLD: At first, they were letting kids pick anything they wanted off YouTube, but they had to stop.
RODRIGUEZ: Believe it or not, pretty much all of the most recent Justin Bieber videos are inappropriate.
GOLD: After a few questions for his parents, Matthew is ready to go to surgery.
RODRIGUEZ: All right. So we're going to unlock the bed. We're going to start rolling back.
GOLD: He doesn't have time to worry as he's rolled through the hospital corridor. He's immersed in an episode of the cartoon "Ninjago", and Dr. Rodriguez, also a "Ninjago" fan, is peppering him with questions.
RODRIGUEZ: Matthew, do you have any of the characters - toys, anything like that?
GOLD: In the operating room, Rodriguez switches the movie to one he's designed and edited himself.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) It is now time to hook up our space monitors.
RODRIGUEZ: Space monitors. Let's get our space monitors.
GOLD: It's a full blast-off experience where the kid feels like they're taking a trip to the moon instead of going under for surgery.
RODRIGUEZ: All right. Let's get ready for our countdown. Five, four, three, two and a half, two, one and a half, one. All right. Let's get ready for our blast-off. You're going to feel the rocket ship start to move.
GOLD: The nurses gather around the bed, shaking it.
RODRIGUEZ: Do you feel it? Can you smell the rocket fuel? Take a deep breath, man. All right. Good job, buddy. Matthew, you're still with us?
GOLD: And Matthew is asleep and ready for surgery. Afterwards, his mom looks relieved.
HUSBY: I don't think he even saw all the machines and everything around him because that can be really intimidating.
GOLD: A few hours later, Matthew woke up. He didn't feel great, but he was still in good spirits. He wanted to make clear that he did not actually believe he was going to the moon.
MATTHEW: It just felt like I was going to sleep.
GOLD: Was it a cooler going-to-sleep process than the ones you've had in the past?
MATTHEW: Yeah, it was way cooler. And I didn't feel like I was taking off, but it was really fun anyways.
GOLD: And fun doesn't sound like a bad way to go into surgery. I'm Jenny Gold in Palo Alto, Calif.
MCEVERS: Jenny Gold is with Kaiser Health News.
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