Ava can’t take her eyes off the laptop screen. But it’s not a game or a movie that has so fully captured the 7-year-old’s attention. It’s her friends.
Although Ava is confined to her hospital room, she’s able to talk with her friends in another part of the hospital. She’s even able to travel with them and participate in their activities.
Ava’s able to virtually break through her hospital walls using a 4-foot VGo robot.
“Ava’s face lit up when they brought in the robot,” says her grandmother, Elvia Tobias. “She was so disappointed when she had to be admitted to the hospital and wouldn’t be able to attend the rest of the special camp.
She’s used the robot all day, which allowed her to focus on happy things rather than missing out and being sick.”
VGo robots put pediatric cancer patients in control
Imagine video chat interactions combined with Segway mobility, and you’ve got a good picture of the VGo. The patient sees through the robot’s camera and a screen shows the patient’s face. Everything’s controlled by the patient through software loaded on a laptop.
“The kids quickly learn how to use the controls. They’re usually better than I am at driving it around,” says Adrian Jackson, who has supported the VGo project for two years as a support services analyst in Pediatrics.
MD Anderson has two VGo robots that are used in a variety of ways to help keep our childhood cancer patients connected and involved in school and life while they’re being treated.
The primary goal is education, according to Daniel Smith, manager, Pediatric Education and Creative Arts.
“The VGos, which are named Travis and Taylor, allow isolated patients to attend class virtually in our Children’s Cancer Hospital School so battling cancer doesn’t get them off-track academically,” Smith says.
Robots on the road
The robots also go on road trips to our patients’ schools. These visits allow patients to connect with their classmates when they’re away for cancer treatment.
Jackson serves as a chaperone of sorts to troubleshoot any technical issues, such as Wi-Fi connectivity.
“I especially remember one class that was so excited to be able to see and talk with their friend. What really surprised me was the emotional response of the patient’s teachers, who were fighting back tears,” Jackson says. “It was a day that made me feel like I really made a difference.”
Smith and Wykesha Hayes, coordinator, Pediatrics School, work with school districts on longer-term uses, too. Setting a child up to use the VGo at his or her school is more challenging. According to Smith and Hayes, a Memorandum of Understanding must be executed with the school district and technical issues must be navigated.
“Wi-Fi availability and strength in schools can be spotty, so we’ve equipped Taylor and Travis with survival backpacks that include things like Wi-Fi hotspots to improve the experience for patients,” Hayes explains.
Fun during cancer treatment
The VGo robots allow our patients to stay connected to people and involved in life – and even have fun – during cancer treatment.
“Ava was able to attend the first day of Camp For All 2U but was going to have to miss the other days when she had to be admitted to receive intense chemotherapy, the most difficult phase of treatment for her acute lymphoblastic leukemia,” says her mother, Liz Gallien.
Thanks to Travis, she didn’t miss out. She watched the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus performers and made a tulle headband just as her friends did at the arts-and-crafts station. And that was just one morning!
“The best part is talking to my friends,” Ava says.
A longer version of this story originally appeared in Messenger, MD Anderson’s quarterly publication for employees, volunteers, retirees and their families.