Josh Kurtz, a University of Michigan Medical School student, transports himself inside the Stanford Virtual Heart

“I am a fourth-year medical student on my pediatric cardiology rotation, and I am standing inside a child’s heart that has the complex defect, Tetralogy of Fallot. I am in the right ventricle, and as I look around me I can see the thickened musculature of the right ventricular wall, and oxygenated blood (conveniently colored red) pumping through the ventricular septal defect, mixing with the deoxygenated blue-colored blood around me; as I look through the VSD, I can see how the aorta is shifted, almost sitting on top of the septum as a mix of blue and red blood flows through it.

Although I had seen this represented in pictures before, it feels so much more tangible and provides such a greater depth of understanding to be able to physically see both the anatomic differences and the consequences of those differences in front of me in real time.

Welcome to life inside the Stanford Virtual Heart – an incredible virtual reality tool that brings medical education to life.

On first usage, I must admit I was initially intimidated by the large ski-goggle appearing headset and the two circular controls. But despite not being particularly tech-savvy and never having experienced VR, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the tools were easy to use and the set-up instructions were clear. After the software started up, I looked up and saw in front of me a shelving unit full of beating human hearts. I reached forward using the hand controls to grab the first anatomically normal heart off the shelf. Incredible!

In front of me was an anatomically accurate heart beating in real time. I pinched the circular bar surrounding the heart to rotate it, so I could see all of the chambers, outflow tracts, and coronary blood vessels. Better yet, I pinched one of the onscreen tools and each of these respective components broke apart and expanded outward around me.

Despite being broken apart, each element continued to beat in time. From this viewpoint, I was able to clearly see one of the anatomical elements that I had been repeatedly quizzed on (and confused by) throughout medical school – the right ventricle was definitively the most anterior structure in the heart. It thereby became much easier to see that the pulmonary outflow tract, which flows from the anteriorly located right ventricle, is located anterior to the aorta.

I pulled the pieces of the heart together and followed the onscreen instructions to experience what is undoubtedly the best part of the Stanford Virtual Heart. I clicked on the right atrium and was full-on Magic School Bus-style transported inside. I looked around and could see the deoxygenated blood flow in from the inferior and superior vena cavae as well as the coronary sinus. Looking below me, I saw the tricuspid valve open and close with each beat. Conveniently, I could point to each of these structures with my controllers and labels appeared. It quickly became apparent that the Stanford Virtual Heart had been designed by educators – I was prompted to find and observe all of the key structures in each chamber, with helpful informational tidbits included along the way.

After exiting the heart, I continued to appease my inner nerd as I grabbed various anatomically abnormal hearts (ranging from a simple VSD to a complex hypoplastic left heart) off the shelf and jumped inside. Having just been inside an anatomically normal heart, I was able to mentally compare how the various pathologies deviated from the heart structures’ normal locations and physiologic blood flow. More important, with clearly colorcoordinated blood, it was easy to see how certain heart defects, like Tetralogy of Fallot, could lead to a right-to-left-shunt and cause cyanosis, whereas others, like a VSD, led to a left-to-right shunt and under most conditions, would not.

Undoubtedly, the Stanford Virtual Heart helped me to recognize what my cardiology education had lacked – exploring how various pathologies affected blood flow through the heart, an inherently dynamic structure, in real time. It was also fortunately easy to use, designed with education in mind and above all else made learning what it should be – fun.”