Patient Steffon Boyd, 17, of Dalton uses a tablet to control an OhmniLabs robot on his floor at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite on Dec. 19, 2019. Boyd uses the robot to interact with people and participate in group activities in the Child Life Zone Network at the hospital. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Robots bring holiday cheer to Children’s patients

A group of children is huddled around a craft table making snowman ornaments at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite when they’re greeted by what looks like a Segway scooter with a tablet affixed to the top.

“What up, homies?” the droid inquires with a playful cadence.

Smiling on the tablet’s screen was Jaden Campbell, an 11-year-old patient at the Sandy Springs hospital who was controlling the robot from his room in another wing.

Jaden has cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that causes severe damage to the lungs, digestive system and other organs. The Smyrna resident was recently admitted for double pneumonia and placed in isolation to prevent infection during his stay.

A new program at Children’s is aiming to bring some holiday cheer to patients like Jaden through two telepresence robots named “Trisha” and “Garth.” The bots — remote-controlled, wheeled devices with a speaker and wireless internet connectivity — allow children on bed rest and in isolation to participate in morale-boosting activities with other kids from their hospital beds.

Children’s has introduced the robots over the last year, scheduling time for patients to drive them through the hospital to interact with staff and other kids and partake in events using a videoconferencing system similar to FaceTime or Skype. Some patients recently used Garth and Trisha to talk to Santa.

Patient Steffon Boyd’s, 17, face is displayed on a screen attached to an OhmniLabs robot as he roams the hallway outside of his hospital room at the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite on Dec. 19, 2019. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“It’s something that can cheer them up pretty instantly,” said Amanda Roberts, a child life specialist at the hospital. “It encourages socialization for kids that miss getting to go to school and hanging out with friends while they’re here.”

The robots were donated by the Teammates for Kids, a Denver-based foundation co-founded by country music star Garth Brooks. The charity has provided the seed money for nearly a dozen pediatric hospitals, including Children’s, to build special therapeutic play areas for patients and their families to unwind and work with certified professionals to help cope with their illnesses. The robots are manufactured by OhmniLabs, a Silicon Valley-based robotics company.

In recent months, patients have used Garth and Trisha — named after the musician and his famous wife, Trisha Yearwood — to take part in scavenger hunts, meet-and-greets with members of the Atlanta Falcons and select Halloween costumes and holiday gifts for their families.

“It gives them a source of control and normalcy and helps make the hospital less scary,” Roberts said.

Seventeen-year-old Steffon Boyd uses the robots to remotely attend photography classes across the hospital. He even dressed up Trisha in a bow tie and fedora for a recent special event.

A Dalton native with a broad smile and passion for art and theater, Steffon is paralyzed from the waist down and on bed rest.

On a recent sunny morning, the high school junior showed off a Grinch-themed mini Christmas tree he selected using the robot during a hospital event and the pickle ornament he added to the display.

When people first encounter the robots in the hospital corridors, Steffon said, they’re “definitely” surprised.

“They don’t really know what to make of it, and sometimes you see people side-eye it,” he said. “Other times people are just really welcoming and they’re like, ‘hey!’”

It was hard to walk more than 10 feet with Trisha on Steffon’s floor without being stopped by curious guests and hospital staff members alike.

“I love that!” an amused visitor exclaimed to her friends, waiving at Steffon via the tablet’s camera.

“Is that Steffon?” a nurse asked as Trisha wheeled by her workstation.

“I’ll come see you later, OK?” another nursed stopped to tell the teenager through the monitor.

People wave at Jaden Campbell, 11, as he enters an activity room at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite using an OhmniLabs robot on Dec. 19, 2019. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

In another wing of the hospital, Jaden was still gaining some finesse with Trisha’s tablet control system.

Jaden is a gamer — earlier in the morning he was absorbed in a game of Risk on his iPad as he completed a lung therapy session — but Trisha kept freezing due to a spotty Wi-Fi connection.

He was testing out the machine when his mother, Jennifer Sadosky, approached his room.

“Can you see me?” Sadosky asked as Jaden rolled Trisha into the hallway and tilted the screen up to meet his mother’s gaze. She jokingly gave the robot a hug.

“I can see inside your nostril,” Jaden replied, cracking a smile.

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Staff writer Helena Oliviero contributed to this article.