Telepresence Robot Helps Terminally Ill Canberra Schoolgirl Return To Classroom

A terminal illness has kept Freyja Christiansen out of her kindergarten class, until now.

Freyja has a form of cancer called clear-cell sarcoma, which among other things, weakens her immune system to the point she cannot enter the classroom. But — with the help of a mobile robot, a laptop and a decent wi-fi connection — the six-year-old Canberra girl is ready to return to the fray with her friends at Yarralumla Primary School. Dressed in matching Wonder Woman garb, Freyja eagerly takes charge of Emmeline the robot, quickly renamed ‘WonderBot’. After some teething problems, the pair are in lock-step and Freyja can see her classmates again. Once virtual Freyja enters the room, it’s bedlam. Every student wants a look at their new digital classmate, sending Freyja, sitting down the hall in the deputy principal’s office, into hysterics. Any early concerns about not being able to drive ‘WonderBot’ properly were replaced by a single-minded determination. “Hey, you guys,” she said through the microphone.

“Better watch out, otherwise you’re going to get run over.”

According to her mother, this sort of interaction was “the missing piece” when Freyja was attending hospital schools. “Being terminally ill and having cancer, [she] has a supressed immune system,” Lizzie Christiansen-Young said. “So that means coming into contact with people using those services puts her life at risk.” Megan Gilmour co-founded the Missing School program in 2012 with two other Canberra mothers who had seen their children endure life-threatening illnesses. Now, with help from a three-year, $600,000 grant from the St George Foundation, the organisation is trying to help seriously sick Australian kids live a relatively normal life, starting in the ACT. “We know academically that kids fall behind in these circumstances, but they do get hospital school teaching and some other forms of support academically,” she said. “However, the importance of it is really around social and emotional connection, and that can’t be made up by anything but your own community. That’s the importance of it for us.” And clearly, that’s what is important to young Freyja too. After any trip out into the world, she has to be hooked up to a $52,000 Meditron machine from Prague, which will tell her all the bugs she has picked up through the day and deliver treatment. But for a little bit, she was just a kid back with her friends and loving it.


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