The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Meet Patrice, the Spy Museum robot who is opening a secret world to hospitalized kids

Lucy Stirn, a Spy Museum employee, talks to a hospitalized child who is using the robot to visit the museum. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

For a moment, on a recent evening, 12-year-old Elizabeth “Izzie” Sims isn’t focused on the hospital room around her.

Transported through technology, she is racing down an aisle at the International Spy Museum in D.C., toward a clear glass case that holds a model of a white-haired rodent with a bellyful of money.

“What is that?” Jackie Eyl, a museum employee, asks.

“A rat,” the girl responds.

“It’s not an ordinary rat,” Eyl explains. “It’s a spy rat.”

The CIA during the Cold War used dead rats to pass messages and money between agents, she says. She tells the girl that the agents tucked the items inside the animals and then sprinkled them with hot sauce to ward off hungry cats.

“Isn’t that nasty? Isn’t that gross?” she says as Izzie laughs. “Do you want to see dog doo?”

“Yeah,” Izzie says in a tone that expresses, “Of course.”

Soon, Eyl is showing her tiger dung that was used in Vietnam to conceal a radio transmitter.

Nothing is quite as it seems in the Spy Museum, which warns visitors as soon as they step off the elevator that they are leaving the world they knew and entering the shadow world. Here, in this secret world of spies, a pencil can contain a map, and a chess board can serve as an escape kit. Here, visitors aren’t just visitors. They are given agent names and missions to complete.

The transformative nature of the museum makes it an especially fitting home for Patrice, a robot who is also much more than she appears.

The small, sleek robot is opening up the museum to hospitalized children and young adults who can’t physically get to the building. From their beds at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, they can control where Patrice goes and what her camera sees. They don’t just occupy a virtual space; they command a physical one. As they explore, their faces fill a screen near Patrice’s head, and their voices come out of her speakers.

“The robot, it disappears, it becomes them,” says Eyl, who is the director of youth education for the museum. “When we’re looking at Patrice, we’re looking at the child, and we don’t make any distinction.”

With Izzie, that becomes clear as soon as her face appears on the screen, ready to take a tour. Eyl and Lucy Stirn, the museum’s school and youth programs manager, let Izzie do the driving and decide where to stop. Along the way, the two trained educators alternate between calling her by her real name and her spy name, Agent Kayak.

Do you want to see some spy gadgets, Agent Kayak?

Do you want to race, Agent Kayak?

Museum staff members used to visit children at hospitals, but the pandemic forced those trips to stop. Then in November, Eyl saw an email from a Johns Hopkins medical student who remembered going to the museum as a child. He wanted to know whether the museum was interested in getting a robot that could remotely facilitate connections with hospitalized youths.

“This is really cool,” Eyl recalls thinking. “It’s another way to go beyond the brick and mortar.”

An email exchange followed, and soon, the museum staff was meeting Patrice and learning how to operate her.

Galen Shi, a medical student at Johns Hopkins University, is the founder of the WeGo Foundation, which provided Patrice. When we talk on a recent evening, he explains that the idea of using robots to allow children to escape the hospital, if only for a short while, came to him after he volunteered at an outpatient clinic and interned with a company that was using robotics to improve the delivery of health care.

“I kind of brought those two ideas together,” he says. “When you’re at the hospital, you kind of lose a lot of your autonomy. A lot of things happen to you. One of the things we cherish about this is giving these kids their sense of autonomy back.”

Patrice, he says, was named after the director of child life services at Johns Hopkins, who has played an important role in the project. The robot is the first that the group has housed at a D.C. venue, but she is not the first of her kind. She has two more experienced siblings who live in Baltimore. A robot named Kevin is located at the Maryland Science Center, and one named RAE, which stands for Remote Aquarium Explorer, is at the National Aquarium.

Shi says the group is applying for nonprofit status, and the dream is to have a fleet of robots in venues across the world, so that hospitalized children and eventually adults in assisted-living facilities can choose to go anywhere they want.

At the core of the effort is accessibility. It is opening up spaces and experiences for people who would otherwise be left out.

A frightening fire drill forced a teen to see her school through a disabled friend’s eyes. Then, she couldn’t look away.

“I think covid has opened a lot of people’s eyes about this,” Shi says. Before the pandemic, people could sympathize with how it felt to be stuck inside hospitals and other facilities, looking at the same walls each day, he says. “Now, they can empathize.”

Izzie’s stepmom, Brittany Sims, describes the 12-year-old as a naturally curious child, the kind who will throw out random facts about walrus anatomy. But Izzie’s cystic fibrosis has meant long hospital stays, and by the end of them, she is usually so bored that she just wants to sleep, Sims says.

The day Izzie toured the Spy Museum was different, Sims says. She describes Izzie as excited for it to start and still talking about it after it ended.

“She told me about the tiger poop,” she says, laughing.

So far, the museum has given only a handful of tours to hospitalized children using Patrice. On that night, they did three and allowed photographer Sarah Voisin and me to witness them.

A short while after Izzie says goodbye, Patrice flickers her lights, and on her screen appears a 4-year-old girl, holding a small Troll doll.

Stirn and Eyl show an impressive amount of energy and enthusiasm during each tour. They present exhibits with an excitement that doesn’t let on that they have talked about them countless times. But working with hospitalized children means also knowing when to cut tours short, and within a few minutes, the 4-year-old makes it clear that she wants to go.

The two women say goodbye and wait for Patrice to let them know when the next child is ready.

Soon, 7-year-old Hayden Dawes, who has hydrocephalus and has been in the hospital for a week to replace a shunt, appears on the screen. He holds a wand and waves it in a magician-like manner.

“What are you going to turn me into?” Stirn asks.

“A bunny rabbit,” he says, smiling, before flicking his wrist.

Stirn drops to the floor and starts hopping toward one of the display cases, signaling to Hayden to follow.

Only here, he is not Hayden. He is Agent McGillicuddy.

Read more from Theresa Vargas:

Their three children have a fatal disease, and they refused to let the coronavirus take away their only chance at saving them

As the Smithsonian, a small team takes on a big question: how to keep coronavirus concerns from taking away accessibility?

Claire’s Journey: Their 8-month-old daughter was admitted to the hospital for a common virus. Then they discovered her brain was ‘shrinking.’