Robot allows boy to ‘attend’ school during chemo

By Judi Currie, fosters.com

ROLLINSFORD — Fifth-grader Levi Whitcomb has missed all but a few school days since being diagnosed with brain cancer this spring. The Rollinsford 10-year-old underwent surgery in April to remove a brain tumor and in now on his fourth round of chemotherapy.

Jen Pepin, Levi’s mom, said it is hard for Levi to be separated from all the kids he has gone to school with for so long.

“He misses his classmates desperately,” Pepin said. “But his white blood cell count gets down so low he would be very susceptible to getting sick. I have been reluctant to send him to school because if he gets sick he can’t fight it off.”

While Pepin was at Rollinsford Town Hall, Andrea Cass, deputy town clerk, told her about Grahamtastic Connections, an organization set up specifically to help children with cancer stay connected with school.

Rollinsford Grade School (RGS) Counselor Julie Person said when Grahamtastic called to ask if they would be willing to have a robot in the classroom for Levi to be able to access when he cannot be at school they were thrilled.

The robot is about 4 feet tall and has a screen on it. Anytime Levi is able to, he can log in and connect to his laptop. An individual connected to the organization donated the laptop.

Person said the screen on the robot and on the laptop essentially work as a video chat system.

“The camera on the robot will be showing Levi where his classmates are and he will have a view of the classroom,” Person said. “The screen on the robot shows Levi’s little face.”

Using the laptop controls Levi can move the robot around the room, down the hallway, from room to room. So on the days he is not physically able to be at RGS, he is able to log in and virtually join his classmates in whatever learning is happening at the time.

Pepin said her son is a natural. While she and Person were trying to set up the controls they could not get the camera to tilt.“Levi figured it out in less than five seconds,” Pepin said. “It was a little embarrassing for me.”

According to Pepin, Levi named the robot McFly because years ago his stepfather nicknamed him Levi McFly. “I don’t think he has even seen Back to the Future.”

Person said the class makes sure to bring the robot with them, and on Wednesday during music lesson Levi tuned in. “The screen lit up and up popped Levi, so he in the hospital in Boston but he was able to join his class during the music lesson.”

The students are RGS eat in the classrooms, so during lunch Levi was able to move the robot around to all the tables and visit with his classmates.

“It was pretty incredible for him to be able to have that at his fingertips to stay connected,” Person said.

Person spent time Tuesday bringing the robot around RGS, answering questions from the students, helping them have familiarity with the robot, and making sure they would be respectful and know it is not a toy, and not jump in front of it.

“I tried to stress to the children how incredible it is that we can have this robot here,” Person said “We would rather not have it here because we would rather have Levi here, obviously.”

Person said McFly is really giving Levi access to school.

“He wants to be here as much as possible and this is allowing him to truly be a part of his class even though he cannot be in the building,” Person said.

Pepin said her son will be home four out of the five days this week so he should be able to log on quite a bit. She said Levi is able to learn, visit his friends and have fun controlling McFly.

“It is a trifecta,” Pepin said. “It is academic, it is socialization and he has fun with it, too.”