By Sindya N. Bhanoo
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 31, 2009
Almost every day for the past six weeks, 7-year-old Becky Wilson has turned on her laptop, made sure the built-in webcam was working, and started a live video chat. Her bright blue eyes peer into the camera, and her face widens into a smile: Time for class!
Becky is a leukemia patient, and her illness often keeps her away from her fellow students at Jamestown Elementary School in Arlington County. But through a video linkup using a second laptop at the school, she has been able to join her first-grade class almost every morning in solving math problems, listening to poetry and working on group projects.
The home laptop and school webcam that keep Becky connected were donated by the Washington area chapter of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society; her setup is one of six given to Georgetown University Hospital's pediatric oncology program, where Becky is being treated. Becky was the first child to be given the equipment for use while she was stuck at home.
"Having this technology available is really a turning point for children with cancer and other serious illnesses," said Aziza Shad, Georgetown's pediatric oncology director. "They miss their teachers. They miss their friends. These laptops with webcams provide a perfect way for them to participate in a lesson and stay connected with their school."
Becky received a diagnosis of leukemia in August 2007. The leukemia went into remission after a series of treatments, and Becky was able to join her kindergarten class in April 2008. But in December, she slipped on ice and broke her arm. Her white blood cell count started dropping, putting her immune system in danger. Since then, she has had to stay out of school while efforts were made to push her counts back up.
Leukemia, a cancer of the blood, weakens the immune system. White blood cell counts can drop rapidly at times, making it difficult to fight infections.
"My white blood cells left the building!" Becky said into the webcam, explaining what was keeping her out of school. "My body was so focused on healing my arm that it forgot about my blood."
Arlington County provides Becky with an at-home tutor who helps her with schoolwork when she misses class, but the webcam fills a social void by allowing her to interact with her classmates.
"She's a very bright child" who would probably have no trouble making up for schoolwork she had missed, said her mother, Lisa Wilson. "The webcam really just adds that extra dimension that she misses."
Becky's teacher, Lainie Ortiz, said the video link is good for the other students as well.
"They can see that she's okay. It's great for them," Ortiz said. When Becky calls in, the other students run up to the computer to greet her.
The camera in the classroom is set up so Becky has full view of all her classmates and the teacher. "It's like I'm there," Becky said.
The webcam has exceeded Ortiz's expectations as an academic tool. When Becky tunes in for class and has a question, she raises her hand and Ortiz calls on her. During story time, Ortiz will bring the book she's reading up to the computer, so Becky can see the pictures, too.
"We really are able to get through lessons," Ortiz said.
Georgetown's webcam program is not the first of its kind. Hopecam, a nonprofit based in Reston, offers similar assistance to homebound children with cancer. Since 2003, Hopecam has helped about 75 children connect with their families, friends and classmates.
Last week, Becky returned to school for three days after doctors said she was doing well enough. "I think the web camera really helped her readjust," Ortiz said. "She still has to get used to the school routines, but the kids are already running and playing with her."
Becky was thrilled, as there are a few things she just cannot do via webcam, such as pretending to be a monkey at recess. There are already plans in the works.
"We'll have our Monkey World Talent Show," she said. "The other girls swing from the monkey bars, but I'm not allowed to, so my talent will involve jumping down the steps."