Mr. Roboto: New VGo Robots help connect sick children with family, normal life

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By Heide Brandes, Red Dirt Report

OKLAHOMA CITY – At just barely 20 months old, Imri Talley has spent the majority of his short life in a hospital. Besides being born seven weeks early, he contracted pneumonia. His little lungs were not strong enough to fight for air, so an incision was made in his tiny throat for a tracheotomy tube, and Imri was placed on a ventilator that worked his lungs for him.

Nakia Talley, Imri’s mother, visits the Children’s Center Rehabilitation Hospital in Bethany daily. Her baby stopped breathing in church one morning and since that day, he’s suffered numerous infections, pulmonary hypertension, an enlarged heart, a hole in his heart, staph infections and more. She was referred to The Children’s Center Rehabilitation Hospital to help wean the infant off the ventilator, a struggle that has taken months.

It wasn’t until May that Nakia heard her baby boy laugh for the first time.

“Imri had pneumonia and he was intubated and we almost lost him,” said Nakia. “But since he’s been here, he’s come off the ventilator completely. He still gets oxygen treatments, but we find out this week when he can come home.”

Her other three sons, ages 9, 7 and 4, can’t understand why they can’t visit their adored baby brother in the Children’s Center’s complex care unit, especially during RSV and flu season when just a tiny kiss from a big brother could spell disaster for Imri’s health.

“My kids are under 12, and they couldn’t go in to see him,” Nakia said. “The boys would cry because they couldn’t see him. It’s hard when your 4-year-old cries for his brother, but you can’t take him in.”

Now, Nakia and her sons have a new way to interact with Imri, thanks to two robots nicknamed “C-3PO” and “R2D2.”

The Starlight Children’s Foundation and Astellas USA Foundation partnered to provide two VGo robots at The Children’s Center Rehabilitation Hospital in Bethany.

Patients and staff gathered at the facility Wednesday to unveil and celebrate the new VGo robots, which offer hospitalized children a way of  telecommuting into a school or health care setting. Remote control access with two-way audio-video motorized mobility puts students with injuries, extended illnesses and other physical challenges back in the classroom, and gives doctors, nurses and child life staff the ability to care for patients over long distances.

VGo robots allow users to easily move about in real-time through the school or hospital environment by means of a laptop or handheld remote control.

“This is neat because it allows our kids to participate in activities like going to class or talking with their siblings,” said Danielle Dunn, public relations coordinator for the Children’s Center. “We brought the robots to prom, too. We hold a prom at the hospital, and some of our patients are too sick to go to prom, but they were able to watch it because the robots went to the prom and they could see it through the laptops.

“It’s really a quality of life issue. Kids want to play, to have a normal childhood.”

The VGo robots are funded as part of a $250,000 grant from Astellas USA Foundation that will have a positive impact on quality of life for thousands of patients and staff every year at more than a dozen pediatric Starlight community partners across the nation, including children’s hospitals and pediatric rehabilitation centers, such as The Children’s Center Rehabilitation.

“We feel blessed to be chosen as a recipient of the VGo robots. These robots will allow the patients an opportunity to enjoy life outside of a hospital room,” said, Melissa Richey, director of Communications and Marketing, The Children’s Center Rehabilitation Hospital. “The robots will also allow siblings of patients, who aren’t able to sit bedside, the chance to communicate, which will drastically strengthen that bond between them.”

Remote controlled through a laptop, iPad or iPhone, VGo robots allow a patient or a doctor to navigate and interact with people in a different location. VGo is uniquely integrated with a camera, microphones and a video display – all on a light-weight, motorized platform.

VGo robots are optimized at 4 feet tall so they work equally well when interacting with people who are sitting or standing.

In 2016, Astellas USA Foundation is funding the placement of 22 VGo robots in 13 Starlight community partners’ locations in Massachusetts, Illinois, Oklahoma and California. Previous support from Astellas USA Foundation to Starlight has funded the renovation of two state-of-the-art, family-friendly healing environments -a pediatric dialysis unit in Oklahoma City and teen lounge in Chicago — both of which opened in the past few months.

The Children’s Center Rehabilitation Hospital is a private, nonprofit hospital that offers 24-hour medical care and rehabilitative therapy and respiratory care to children with a variety of issues. The center has four main areas of service – a complex care unit for children with birth defects or complications, traumatic injuries or illnesses; a pediatric medical rehabilitation center that provides rehab for traumatic injury or sudden illnesses; a pediatric clinic that serves more than 2,300 patients a year; and outpatient therapy.

“The goal is to get the patients off the ventilators and well enough to go home,” said Dunn.