Chemo’s no obstacle for this boy and his bot

‘Beam’ the robot allows Hugo Roy, 11, to attend school even while undergoing treatment for leukemia

Grade 6 student Hugo Roy can interact with his classmates through ‘Beam,’ a robot he controls from his laptop while he undergoes treatment for leukemia at CHEO. (CBC)

When 11-year-old Hugo Roy can’t go to school because he’s undergoing chemotherapy, a robot attends class for him.

From his room at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, Hugo, who misses as many as four days of classes per week to undergo treatment for leukemia, uses a laptop to manoeuvre the wheeled machine through the halls of École élémentaire catholique La Vérendrye in Gloucester.

The Grade 6 student can also interact through a Skype-like application with his classmates and teachers, who can see him on an eye-level screen.

The technology may be relatively basic, but “Beam” the robot is proving to be a portal to a more normal life for students like Hugo.

“When I’ve got to go to hospital, I’m feeling a bit like, ‘Dang it! I’m gonna miss a day of school.’ Now that I have a robot I’m more happy because I’m not going to miss a day of school, [and] I can participate in class.”

The robot is popular with his classmates, too. A friend accompanies the robot on its strolls through the school to make sure other students don’t get carried away with the delicate machine.

Ottawa’s French-language Catholic school board bought five of the robots in January. They were originally intended for a “virtual exchange” program with foreign students who wanted to experience classroom life in Canada.

But when administrators found out that Hugo would need to miss classes for treatment, they decided to reassign one of the machines.

Hugo’s mother Rosalie Roy said it’s been life-changing for her son.

“It’s fantastic! I think having the robot allows him to stay in contact with his friends, not miss so much school. But I think the relationship part is very present and important for him.”

The board has deemed the experiment a success, and plans to turn to the robots next time a student is in a similar situation.

“It’s a great initiative for the school board to try and help all these other kids,” Rosalie Roy said. “I mean, Hugo is not the first, and he won’t be the last to go through something like this, and he will be more than happy to show somebody else how to use the robot.”

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