MonTech robot helps Victor kindergartner stay connected

By Perry Backus, Ravalli Republic

VICTOR — “Are you ready Miss Piper?”

The lights on the Vgo robot standing a couple of feet away from Victor Kindergarten teacher Sue Lane blink happily.

“Is your paper folded short and fat or long and skinny?”

“Short and fat,” comes Piper’s response.

On tiny tables surrounded by tiny chairs, the rest of Lane’s kindergarten class finishes folding their own pieces of paper into four little squares.

Math class is set to begin.

On the other side of town – across busy Highway 93 – 6-year-old Piper Heinz is keeping a close eye on her teacher on the electronic tablet that rests on the family’s kitchen table.

She draws the same candy canes, presents and Christmas stars that her classmates at school do as they learn a lesson on how to add and subtract. When her classmates hold up their fingers to show the answer, Piper does the same.

And when the lesson comes to an end, her classmates make a beeline to the robot’s camera to share their work with their friend.

“They all love Piper,” Lane said, with a smile.

***

The sweet little blonde-haired bundle of joy was born with cystic fibrosis.

At first, her parents weren’t sure that she would survive.

“I didn’t know anything about cystic fibrosis back then,” said Piper’s mother, Virginia. “It’s genetic. I had no idea I carried that gene, but now I know so does 80 percent of the population.”

People with cystic fibrosis have a defective gene that causes a buildup of mucus in the lungs, pancreas and other organs.

In the lungs, that mucus can trap bacteria, which can lead to extensive lung damage and respiratory failure. In the pancreas, the mucus prevents the release of digestive enzymes that allows the body to break down food and absorb nutrients.

Before people understood its dangers, children born with the disease often didn’t live to see their first birthday.

“It was called failure to thrive,” Heinz said.

Piper can’t digest food without medication. Her lungs have to be manually cleared by someone carefully pounding on her chest. Whenever she goes out into public, Piper wears a mask to protect herself from germs that might stray her way.

“I suppose in a perfect CF world, a person wouldn’t be around anyone or anything,” Heinz said. “They would be a bubble child. Germs are very dangerous to her.”

But that’s not the life anyone wants for Piper.

She started kindergarten this year and went to school with her mask for the first few weeks until her mother heard the annual flu outbreak had arrived in the area.

Heinz and the school knew the day would come that it wouldn’t be safe for her to be with her classmates.

“When Piper came into the school, we all realized that she was going to have a tough time, medically speaking,” said Victor Superintendent and Elementary Principal Lance Pearson.

Pearson said he didn’t know very much about cystic fibrosis initially. When he began researching the disease, he came across some information about how people were using robots to allow home-bound children to stay connected with their peers.

As a former kindergarten teacher, Pearson said he knows how important it is for children of that age to be able to interact with other kids.

“They want to be able to see their classmates,” Pearson said. “They learn as much from their peers as their teachers. When I saw that robot, the light came on. I thought this is what we could do for her.”

No one knew for sure just how well it might work.

***

Instead of being forced to go out and buy one, the school turned to an organization called MonTech that’s headquartered at the University of Montana.

The organization offers a variety of assistive technology items for people with a variety of disabilities and health conditions.

Two years ago, MonTech purchased two robots that can be controlled over the internet. This year, Piper is using one. The other is being used by a student with a different diagnosis on the other side of the state.

“We’re really happy that we’re having this kind of success with both of them,” said MonTech’s clinical coordinator Julie Doerner.

Initially, Doerner said the robots were designed for tele-health applications to allow physicians to examine patients in isolated communities in a private setting.

“When we first bought the robots, we just wanted to demonstrate how they work,” Doerner said. “We wanted to plant a seed at different conferences.”

Someone had the idea they could be used to keep homebound students connected with their classmates. Last spring, MonTech made its first loan of a robot to a student in the Billings area.

“Our loans do have a time limit,” she said. “Unfortunately, the robots are expensive. This does give school districts and others an idea about whether they are worth the investment.”

“So far, we’re hearing that kids love them,” Doerner said. “There are so many things that kids miss out on if they have to rely on other people.”

***

Pearson said it’s been a great learning experience for everyone.

“Even the kids in class are getting something out of it,” he said. “Most importantly, it’s been a neat tool for Piper to be able to interact with her peers.”

The school is looking for a way to purchase its own robot for Piper.

“It’s one of those things that we need to do,” Pearson said. “We all love Piper. We want the best possible education for her.”

Once the danger of the flu season has passed, Heinz said her daughter will return to school with her mask on.

“She knows the flu would wipe her out,” Heinz said. “It could be life ending. She’s also very social. She wants to be with her friends.”

Heinz has been thankful for the school’s efforts to help her daughter.

“Actually I bawled my eyes out when I heard the school was willing to do this,” she said. “People have gone out of their way to do wonderful things for her.”

Piper’s teacher knows how important it is for Piper to stay in touch for her classmates. It’s not only Piper that benefits.

She sees it every day when the robot suddenly comes to life and starts moving across the classroom.

That’s always followed with excited shouts: “Piper is here!”

“Socialization and friendship is what kindergarten is really all about,” Lane said. “They always get excited – sometimes too excited – when she comes in.”

Everyone knows that there will be other times in Piper’s life when she can’t physically be there in the classroom, but the robot will still allow her to be with her friends.

“It’s going to be a great thing for her to have when they all get in middle school,” Lane said. “She will be able to go into the girl’s bathroom and talk. These will always be her people.”