‘I felt like I was there,’ says Mobile student represented by a robot at graduation

Cynthia Pettway, a Mobile high-school student who’s gotten international attention since attending her graduation via a robotic proxy, has a quick answer to the obvious question.

"Yep," she said Thursday. "I felt like I was there."

On Monday, John L. LeFlore Magnet High School held its 2018 graduation ceremony at the University of South Alabama Mitchell Center. A robot that has been described as "an iPad on a Segway" stood to the side, clad in cap and gown, and then rolled across the stage to cheers as Pettway’s name was called.

The screen atop the Double Robotics unit didn’t just bear an image of Pettway’s face. It was linked to another tablet that Pettway held in her hands, in a conference room across town at USA Children’s and Women’s Hospital where she was surrounded by family and friends. All of them could see the Mobile County Public School System’s livestream of the ceremony. Pettway could also see and hear through her robot Double, as she steered it through the ceremony.

It was a triumphant moment. Speaking several days later, still hospitalized, the shy 17-year-old said she’s struggled for years with a "lifetime illness" that she didn’t name. It has caused her to miss out on a lot of school, as well as other things.

"Every job I get, I lose it because of my illness," she said mentioning positions at some local restaurants.

Back in November she’d begun attending night school in an effort to regain lost ground and make it to graduation. She completed her studies on March 22 and it seemed like she’d made it. Then her condition flared up and she was facing a three-week hospital stay that would keep her from making the walk.

"It was a big problem," she said. "I was depressed."

Fortunately a solution was within reach. USA Children’s and Women’s has some specialized resources. One is an in-house school program staffed by four Mobile County teachers and a paraprofessional. Stephanie Maddox, the teaching administrator who oversees the unit and teaches its high school-level lessons, said that its main goal is to keep hospitalized students from falling behind academically. "We start teaching children on Day One," she said, regardless of whether they’ll be hospitalized for a few days or for months.

Another is the Mapp Child and Family Life Program, often referred to as "Child Life." Named for donors Louis and Melinda Mapp of Point Clear, it provides a variety of programs and services to make hospital life more normal for young patients.

"They’ve thrown a prom before," for patients, said Maddox, and added that they’ve also put on Mardi Gras parades for kids who couldn’t make it downtown during Carnival season. Child Life owns two of Double Robotics’ "Doubles," she said. One is dedicated to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

Children can’t visit the NICU, which means that when a newborn baby is placed there, its siblings can’t come to them. A robotic double gives them a chance to get an up-close look at their baby brother or sister, without the chance of passing along harmful germs.

Child Life lets the school program use the other Double, Maddox said, and they’ve found a variety of ways to do so. Earlier this year, a middle-schooler was hospitalized as End of Quarter Tests approached. Via the Double, he was able to attend a review session with his classmates. "It was wonderful," said Maddox.

A few days after Pettway’s graduation, the Double allowed a more famous patient to take part. Aubreigh Nicholas is a fifth-grader suffering from diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG), a rare and aggressive brain cancer. Her case has inspired a legion of supporters known as "Aubreigh’s Army," and an awareness campaign called the Lemon Face Challenge.

Via the Double, Aubreigh was able to attend Honors Day at Allentown Elementary School this week, according to a school system representative.

"We see all kinds of possibilities to use it," said Maddox.

Pettway expects to spend another week or so in the hospital, as doctors get her condition back under control. In the longer term, she’s looking forward to college — maybe at Alabama A&M or Southern University. Her mother Rachael Johnson, who she said was the first to suggest a robotic presence at graduation, has started a GoFundMe drive to help with college expenses.

Without the robot, Pettway would still have memories of her graduation. Her hospital room still would be full of mementos.

"I was in front of the graduating class, so I could see everybody," she said.

"One of my friends started crying at the graduation," she said. "She was texting me, ‘I saw you! I saw you!’"

Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin presented his proposed 2019 fiscal year operating budget to the city council in late April. The city council will have, at least, two budget workshops before taking a vote on the budget.
Memorial Day weekend traffic heads east into the Wallace Tunnel on Interstate 10 midday Friday, May 22, 2015, in Mobile, Ala. (Mike Kittrell/Press-Register file)

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