TAMPA — Lying in bed in a fifth-floor room at Tampa General Hospital, Gavin Benyon’s left arm is hooked up to an intravenous line.
The third grader has common variable immunodeficiency, a disorder that leaves him vulnerable to everyday illnesses such as colds. Since 2019, he’s been visiting the hospital every three weeks for an IVIG, an intravenous infusion of human antibodies.
He must stay in bed throughout the 4-hour treatment, a tough ask for 9-year-old.
Thursday’s visit was a little different. As antibodies dripped into his arm, Gavin’s attention was a mile away at the Florida Aquarium observing sharks, turtles and barracudas through the electronic eye of a robot he was controlling from his hospital bed.
The virtual visit is the result of a new partnership between the aquarium and Tampa General, which has spent $50,000 to buy two “telepresence robots.” The devices allow children in the hospital to guide the chest-high robot throughout the aquarium using a computer or tablet.
The program is aimed at children 6 to 12 who, because they are in the hospital, miss out on field trips or too ill to accompany friends or family to the aquarium, said Roger Germann, aquarium president and CEO. The technology gives the “visitor” a far more involved experience than could be achieved through a smartphone video call, he said.
A small screen, positioned on the robot where a face would be, displays the face of the child operating the robot from the hospital. The robot includes a speaker and microphone so those accompanying the robot can talk to the child as if he were there and share the excitement of the visit. On top of all that, the kid gets to drive a robot.
“I hope every one of those kids, especially if they’re able to go on a ‘visit’ with their family, or their field trip, that it gives them joy,” Germann said. “It creates a memory that you normally can’t create.”
Already a big fan of the aquarium, Gavin was thrilled to be given the run of the place Thursday morning. As well as controlling the robot’s movement, he frequently swiveled the robot’s electronic eye up and down to track sharks around some of the big tanks. As the robot made its way around, Gavin’s face and big smile could be seen on its small screen.
Back in his hospital room, Gavin and his mom, Kimberly Benyon, watched the live feed from the robot.
“It’s like I’m there,” he said. “I don’t have to worry about what’s here.”
The aquarium has been trialing the program for several weeks. Robots are always accompanied by a staff member to ensure no mishaps. Its top speed is a sedate 2 mph.
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A couple of visitors who encountered a robot on their visit did express concern about artificial intelligence and robots taking over the world but became enthusiastic when employees explained that it was a sick kid “behind the wheel” of the technology, Germann said.
Tampa General CEO and President John Couris said it was an easy decision for the hospital to get involved. Hospital care is not just medical but includes treating the mind and spirit, he said.
In addition to the outlay for two devices, the program will cost about $6,000 for software updates and maintenance. When it goes fully live in January, it will be available to any kid who spends time at the hospital; it will be especially helpful for those with serious long-term health issues like cancer or autoimmune diseases, Couris said.
“They’re with us for a long time and when you’re in a hospital for any extended period of time, it can be very isolating,” he said. “To be able to have a child interacting at the hospital, remotely, moving a robot around the aquarium with either his or her parents, family, or with their classmates is special.”