Kyle Weintraub, a 13-year-old battling a rare form of cancer at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, telecommutes to his day school in South Florida with the help of a robot.
Kyle Weintraub has enough gadgets to fill a small Best Buy: video game systems, headphones and about every product that starts with the letter “i.”
But there’s one electronic device that the 13-year-old tech wiz would rather not need — a miniature robot that serves as his proxy at a Jewish day school more than 1,100 miles away from the Philadelphia hospital where he’s receiving treatment for cancer.
The seventh-grade student from South Florida was diagnosed last spring with Anaplastic Large Cell Lymphoma, a rare type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
But with the help of a VGo, a 4-foot-tall robot with a microphone, speakers, cameras and a screen, he’s been able to continue attending classes remotely at David Posnack Jewish Day School even while undergoing treatment at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia since last May.
The robot has not only erased the distance between Philadelphia and Davie, Fla., but also has brought Kyle closer to his classmates, opened up new opportunities —including meeting President Barack Obama — and showed his family how members of the Jewish community rally to help when it is needed most.
A few days before Passover, Kyle sits at his desk at an apartment in Center City, wearing a yarmulke and a headset, staring into a computer screen as classmates sing holiday tunes and dance in front of him.
When the bell rings, he remotely drives the robot through the hallways, saying hello to other middle schoolers as they head to their next class. Kyle’s mother, Robin Weintraub, said he likes to “arrive” at school at least 30 minutes early to hang out in the common area with other students.
“Most guys just ignored me last year,” said Kyle. “I wasn’t really that popular, and then this happened and everyone started putting their attention on me.”
The diagnosis, though traumatic at any moment, came at a particularly bad time for Kyle and his family.
The red-headed boy with a big smile hadn’t been feeling well for a few months. The family had made several trips to the emergency room but each time returned home without any answers.
Then one day, his mother, comforting Kyle as he lay down, felt a “huge egg” in his stomach. The doctors at the hospital told them it was likely just a hernia. But his parents feared worse.
When they learned it was a type of malignant lymphoma that his Florida doctors had little experience with, the Weintraubs started searching for a hospital that had treated similar patients.
“The doctors in Florida looked at us like they had no plan,” Robin Weintraub said. “At CHOP, they already knew exactly what they were going to do.”
While they were eager for Kyle to get treated, they hated the thought of leaving the school where he had finally found a home, his mom said.
With difficulties socially, Kyle had been in and out of a number of schools before landing at the Jewish day school in sixth grade.
“It was the first year that he was in school that he didn’t complain that he was unhappy, so that was critical because he really wanted to be in school there this year,” his mother said.
Then he got sick. Doctors told him treatment typically took about a year, which meant he would likely be unable to have a Bar Mitzvah when he turned 13, and miss out on his classmates’ celebrations as he went through chemotherapy.
“Seventh grade in a Jewish boy’s life is huge because it is when they start having Bar Mitzvahs and do start getting closer and having a lot of social bonds going to everybody’s parties,” Weintraub said. The family has not yet made plans for Kyle’s Bar Mitzvah.
Kyle’s father, David, started researching online and saw stories about other children with cancer who had used the VGo to attend school.
When word spread through the school about Kyle’s cancer, two students decided to help raise money for the robot —which cost more than $6,000 — as part of their Bar and Bat Mitzvah charity projects.
The robot “should make it an easier process for him to reacclimatize into a normal life again, God willing,” his mom said. “The families really have been very wonderful and supportive.”
For the other students, the robot is more than a cool new toy that buzzes around the school, said Niva Alboukrek, a technology specialist at the school.
“They don’t refer to it as a robot; they just refer to it as Kyle,” said Alboukrek. “They’ll see the robot is docked in the office, and they’ll ask, ‘How come Kyle is not in school today?’ ”
Students at the school even made a three-minute video about Kyle and entered it into the first White House Film Festival.
It was one of 16 films from around the country selected out of more than 2,000 submissions. In February, Kyle, his mother and several classmates went to Washington to meet the president.
“A wonderful example of the difference technology can make,” Obama said before shaking Weintraub’s hand, according to news reports of the event. “Even as he is getting medical treatment and fights to get better, Kyle can keep up with his studies.”
Kyle said his experience meeting the president was “kind of surreal. It doesn’t feel like it actually happened because I don’t remember much of it.”
If the treatment proceeds as expected, Robin Weintraub said, she and Kyle hope to head back to Florida in May. She said the doctors are optimistic that he will remain in remission. Her husband and their older son, Brian, remain in Florida but came to Philadelphia for Passover.
Kyle plans to continue to use the robot as he reintegrates into his Florida school. And then?
“Not that you wish it on anybody,” his mother said, “but there will be another child that will come along and have a hospitalization and hopefully will be able to benefit from it and use it as well.”