Robots Are Helping Immunocompromised Kids ‘Go to School’
Back in sixth grade, I was a robot. Or at least, that’s what I told anyone who asked—in reality, my 11-year-old self was completely human. In 2018, I was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a rare bone cancer that meant nine months of chemotherapy and too many surgeries to count. It was a year punctuated with hospital visits, needle pokes, and days when I felt too nauseated to even look at a plate of food.
And yet, my primary concern was that in my immunocompromised state, I was no longer able to attend school. The hospital was a meager substitute—most of the activities available were coloring books and plastic toys. It was nothing compared to the learning I craved. And the nurses and doctors, although lovely, only made me miss my friends—who often couldn’t visit—more.
I missed the most mundane things, from eating lunches in the crowded cafeteria to playing tic-tac-toe with my friends in the margins of notebooks. Even the most boring classes or the longest assemblies would’ve felt like a blessing. I had loved school before, but in the hospital, all I could think about was how I took it for granted.
Seeing my disappointment, the hospital loaned me a gift: a telepresence robot called the VGo.
The VGo was the best alternative to school I could have gotten. Like a video call on wheels, it attended my classes for me while I maneuvered it from an iPad at home or in the hospital. Not only could I go to class—I could attend clubs, talk to my teachers, and even eat lunch with my friends. I finished sixth grade and was back in person the next year.
My victory was short-lived. A year and a half later, the pandemic began, and it was back to virtual learning.
People often ask me how online classes compared to the VGo, and I can say with confidence that the VGo was light-years ahead of Zoom or Google Meet. Although connection issues and audio problems were prevalent in both, virtual classes were somehow more robotic than an actual robot.
One consolation I had, however, was that virtual classes made school accessible to those who remained in the hospital. Although Covid-19 was no friend to those with low immune systems, at least they could attend online school with their peers—telepresence robots were no longer needed for that.
But what happened when schools reopened again?
Chia-Chee Chiu is currently the head of middle school at St. John’s School in Houston. In 2018 she was my principal, and she was one of the main people who helped introduce the VGo to my school. Being no stranger to virtual learning when the pandemic started, she agreed that the VGo was a vast improvement from a simple video call.
“On Zoom, you’re stationary,” she says. “When class ends, class ends. But with a VGo, you were there virtually, moving from class to class, and your friends in the hallway could interact with you. They could interact with you in the class as well.”