Below The Red Hawks junior football player Isaac Little is tackled by a Fenelon Falls Secondary School Falcons defender near the sidelines after returning an interception for close to 20 yards in the HHSS home opener 32-14 loss at the Gary G. Brohman Athletic Field in Haliburton.

Virtual reality brings Haliburton sled dogs to hospitals

By Sue Tiffin

Published March 5 2019

Terminally ill and long-term patients at SickKids can now travel to Haliburton and race down a wintry trail while being pulled by a Winterdance dogsled team without even leaving their hospital room.

Wishplay is a Toronto-based organization that hears wishes from both kids and adults who are isolated in hospitals or hospice centres and then creates a video that when viewed through a pair of virtual reality glasses creates a feeling to the viewer that they are experiencing the scene in real-life. Videos have so far captured adventures and events including the lighting of the Christmas tree in Nathan Phillips Square Toronto’s Santa Claus parade and a trek to Machu Picchu.

This past January Wishplay’s founder David Parker travelled to Haliburton to capture a dogsledding adventure for a patient who longed to have such an experience.

“I sort of looked around and I came across Winterdance their website and saw how they positioned themselves how they treat the dogs how professional they were” said Parker of how he came to be in Haliburton. “There were so many things I didn’t know about dogsledding that I learned just from their website. They seemed to be the right people.”

Ironically Tanya McCready-DeBruin who co-owns Winterdance Dogsled Tours with Hank DeBruin had that same week been looking into bringing a group of SickKids patients to the duo’s property to help brighten the kids’ lives a trip that would be logistically tricky due to the conditions some kids were living with when Parker called.

“They were responsive right away” said Parker. “She asked did you get my number from somebody and I said ‘no this is completely out of the blue.’”

“The timeline was within a couple of days that made it kind of creepy” he laughed.

Parker brought his wife six-year-old and 10-year-old to the Winterdance property and set up to record a tour with the dog team. His girls have been featured in some of the videos including the Winterdance experience.

“The kids – and the adults – respond much better when kids are the focus” said Parker.
On a day in which the windchill was causing the air temperature to drop to minus 45 Parker and his family filmed a two-hour trip with the dogs.

“We truly got to experience the Canadian winter” he said. “It was magical.”

The dogsledding video worked out well and has already been shown to some patients ahead of its March Break launch.

“It was the perfect thing to film the time of day the sun was not blaring down the landscape was perfect the lighting you’re not going too fast so you’re able to capture everything and see everything” said Parker. “It really feels like you’re there and doing it when you use virtual reality.”
The patients have appreciated the chance to see the world around them.

“They’ve just responded so well to it” he said. “I think that when you’re in a hospital bed or you’re having to be in that type of environment … anything to be able to escape and feel like you’re not in a hospital.”

Some patients have requested a trip to Tokyo while some wish to simply experience school again as their illness or treatment leaves their immunity weakened and unable to visit public spaces. A Halloween video was filmed days before Oct. 31 with a Toronto neighbourhood decorating houses and dressing up early to recreate a trick or treating scene so that on the actual holiday patients could participate in the festivities through virtual reality.

“Something like [dogsledding] it’s so foreign” said Parker. “It’s not in the city but the majestic forest and lakes. It was freezing cold so the snow was just glistening. It was just gorgeous and then the dogs are barking and yipping … This sort of brings it more to life and gives [isolated patients] that feeling of being able to be normal again to do those things they normally can’t do. This is kind of extra special because it’s not just something that makes them feel normal but it makes them feel special because a lot of people haven’t done [this].”

He said the journey made him think of his own 45-minute commute from the city “whereas if you do this for an hour you’re out in nature seeing wildlife seeing the dogs pulling the sled and it just kind of puts things into perspective sometimes.”

McCready-DeBruin said the Winterdance team was thrilled to participate in the experience
“The joy that we see that the dogs bring people it doesn’t matter who comes with us the dogs bring us so much joy they bring people so much joy” she said. “To get to share that with people who are facing really big challenges just seems like we’re giving a small bit back because most of them can’t easily come and join us.”

Winterdance has also been involved in commercials shot in Toronto and last year the area and the Winterdance sled dogs set the scene for a music video featuring a Bollywood star. Numerous times throughout the year McCready-DeBruin said the couple are grateful for who they’ve been able to meet and share the dogsled experience with in the 20 years they’ve been in operation including just in the past year a paraplegic teenager an 18-year-old celebrating being cancer-free for 10 years and a family separated across countries due to medical treatment who reunites every two years and noted how special the adventure was this past Christmas because it might be their last together. The virtual reality experience is a new one for the Winterdance team.

“It’s exciting to get to share what we do with people who don’t necessarily come here and for the dogs to reach people that may not ever actually get to meet them” she said. “We know how amazing they are and people who meet them know how amazing they are but we can only welcome so many people every year. So to find a way to take that to a bigger scale so people appreciate how incredible these dogs are it’s hard to put into words it’s pretty cool.”

Parker said the work he does inspires him but also requires everything to come together in order for a wish to be fulfilled.

“Sometimes they pass away before I get to give them a wish” he said of the patients who ask for a film wish. “That’s probably the hardest part of the job. There’s always that urgency to get these things done as soon as possible.”

The Winterdance virtual reality project created by Wishplay will officially launch as a March Break experience in Toronto hospitals this month.