Hospitalized Mount Olive teen stays in school via a special robot
MOUNT OLIVE TWP. – Max Kimpland dreams of cinnamon rolls and going home but for now he’s at least virtually with his classmates at Mount Olive High School.
While being treated last year for complications from a procedure to address scoliosis, the 16-year-old Mount Olive High School junior contracted a virulent fungal infection that wreaked havoc on his gastrointestinal system.
The estimated week-long hospital stay for his initial surgery has morphed into eight straight months. The youth has endured an octopus of 17 pumps and tubes coming in and out of his body, went two months without being able to speak, and hasn’t eaten food since the third week of April.
The details are frightening and they pack an emotional wallop. But the youth fights on with a smile. His classmates and friends have seen Kimpland’s unflagging optimism and fortitude.
The youth has come a long way since the summer when his condition was at its worst. He’s now progressing through his junior year of high school from his hospital room by working with hospital instructors and by using a robot to take him where his body can’t: Into the classroom.
The district bought five VGo robots over the summer for use by students who cannot attend school due to extended illnesses. Manufactured by VGo Communications, a New Hampshire-based firm, the robot is a skinny remotely-controlled kiosk on a motorized platform.
The robot stands four-feet tall and is integrated with a tilting camera, microphones, a video display with a feed from the user’s camera, and even headlights. Think of the VGo as a sophisticated mobile teleconferencing device. Its features, though, allow users an incredible degree of autonomy, and that what makes the device such a powerhouse.
Kimpland, just one of the district’s students using the robots, operates the VGo through his laptop to virtually attend English class via Wi-Fi. He can look around, maneuver throughout the classroom, and use the camera to zoom into the SmartBoard.
He takes part in group discussions and works collaboratively with his peers just as if he were physically present. Assignments are completed using Google’s productivity applications including word processing, spreadsheets, presentations and Google Classroom – a program used throughout the district that allows students to organize and complete their work, turn it in, and communicate in writing with their teachers and classmates.
Kimpland frequently uses his iPad to access the Google apps while simultaneously operating the VGo through his laptop. In class, his is just another face in the room – albeit one on a video screen with a really strange body.
The experience isn’t as good as being there in person and the future of education most certainly is not a classroom of VGos focused on a teacher at a board while students sit home looking at screens. The technology, however, does fill a void and has become almost transparent on both ends of the camera.
“It truly is like he’s here,” said English teacher Jodi Bosch, who works behind the scenes to ensure that Kimpland and his family get the support they need to keep up with the lessons. “How amazing that Max doesn’t even need to miss a beat. It makes me so happy he’s able to be here with us. At first the other students were curious about the VGo, but now it’s almost as if it has been part of our lives every day.”
From his former hospital bed at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and now from the Children’s Specialized Hospital in New Brunswick, Kimpland has been able to be in two places at one time thanks to the VGo. For someone stuck in a hospital for three-quarters of a year, being anywhere else, even virtually, is a blessing. That is especially true for a sociable guy like Kimpland, a young man with Asperger’s and neurofibromatosis who loves to talk and tell jokes, and seemingly knows the name of every secretary and teacher and aide at the high school.
Listening to ‘80s music and watching Disney movies and Penn & Teller can only pass the time for so long. That’s where the VGo has also helped out, replicating as best as possible the social experience of high school.
“Imagine being isolated far from home and then the next day all your friends show up,” said Dawn Mireski, the high school special service consultant who coordinates VGo use there. “The first time he used the VGo everyone here (in the guidance office) had tears in their eyes. We were so happy to see him, he was so happy to see us. It was immediately obvious that this technology would be a huge benefit to him, and not just educationally.”
Kimpland interacts with his peers in English class but sometimes he spends time in the cafeteria during lunch just chatting with his friends and his sister, Gwendolyn, a high school senior. For Halloween, “Robot Max” (his family’s nickname for the VGo) was decorated with black and orange crepe paper and the real Max participated in the school’s safe trick-or-treating event from 80 miles away.
“The robot allows him to be normal-ish,” said boy’s mother, Tracy Kimpland. “Normal with his friends, with his teacher, and his school. His friend, Joe, always jumps in front of the camera and waves. It takes him to a familiar place where he likes to be and seeing people he knows brings a smile to his face.”
Kimpland still has several months of hospitalization ahead of him. While he won’t be able to eat his favorite cinnamon rolls – Kimpland holiday goodies – he should be able to spend some time at home on Christmas Day. There’s no technology in the world that can replicate that. Not yet, anyway.
The logo, “VGo,” combines visual and video elements (the “V”) with independently controlled movement (the “Go”).
A company statement said that VGo Communications Inc. is based in Nashua, N.H. and started as North End Technologies in 2007. The company name was changed before the first VGo robots became generally available in the United States, Canada and Mexico in 2011.
VGo robots are used by healthcare providers, businesses to increase productivity of remote and travelling employees and homebound students to attend school.
VGo’s underlying technology is sophisticated but to the user, it’s simple and no training is required. The remote person brings up the VGo App on their computer, clicks on the location they need to visit and instantly they are there, the statement said.
VGo connects to the internet using WiFi or Verizon 4G LTE service. VGo is continually connected to a purpose built cloud-computing network (VGoNet) that keeps track of its availability and initiates a remote visit upon request by a remote user.
A VGo costs about $6000 plus an annual service contract of about $1,200. VGo can be used by a remote visitor for up to six hours before needing a recharge.
VGo also cannot be used to spy on others or to spy on the user. A number of controls are provided so that various levels of privacy and security can be enabled at any time.
It can’t climb stairs but it is very light it can be easily carried up/down stairs. Stair climbing solutions have been designed but they are very expensive, bulky and complex, the statement said.