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Children battling cancer can’t always express their feelings. Now a robotic duck is doing it for them.

Savi Abdallah-Sinha, a 4-year-old battling leukemia, interacts with a robotic duck designed to provide sick children with a companion and help them communicate with adults. (Peter Holley/The Washington Post) ((Photo by Peter Holley))
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It was hard enough that Savi Abdallah-Sinha was only a 2-year-old when he began undergoing chemotherapy treatment to rid his body of leukemia.

What made his situation even more difficult, his parents say, was knowing that the little boy was so young he lacked the words to communicate the many varieties of acute pain he was experiencing. Each time a new drug was introduced or a round of treatment completed, the boy’s inner world remained largely mysterious to the adults caring for him.

“He couldn’t even say, ‘Why am I taking this medication?’" his father, Rachid Abdallah, said from a family room inside Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C., recalling the first months after his son’s chemotherapy began. “At the same time, we didn’t have the words to give him answers or explain to him what was making him sick.”

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Nearly a year ago — as Savi’s own understanding of his illness was just beginning to come into focus — the Washington, D.C., family received a new tool to help them communicate through the fog of cancer: a quacking robotic duck resembling a soft stuffed animal.

A partnership between the insurance company AFLAC, whose company mascot is a duck, and the robotics toy company Sproutel, the social robot, known as “My Special AFLAC Duck,” uses touch sensors that enable the device to respond to the person interacting with it. Merging play with tools that help doctors do their jobs, the robot — which has four patents pending — can turn its neck, nuzzle, open its beak and emit sounds and vibrations.

When doctors need a patient to breathe in a rhythmic pattern, the duck can emit pulses, designed to mimic a heartbeat, that can help to calm a child and guide their breathing. When doctors administer medication to their patients, a toy syringe can be attached to the robot that allows a child to mimic giving the duck medication as well.

To deal with the painful pricks of syringes, children often need to develop coping strategies that either give them a sense of control in an uncertain environment or distract them during moments of extreme stress, experts say. For many children, that’s exactly what the duck provides, according to Joe Bauer, a certified child life specialist at Children’s National. Tasked with providing emotional support to young patients undergoing treatment, Bauer said the duck has become one of his go-to tools in recent months.

“If there’s a 10-year-old, I can focus on the technology and the cool things the duck can do, but if I’m giving it to a 4-year-old, it’s more like, ‘This is your friend, this is your buddy who is here with you,’ ” he said. “It’s always therapeutic. It can be therapeutic to educate a child or it can just be therapeutic for them to play with a duck and not even talk about the medical aspect of things.

"There are so many ways we can use it,” he added.

Each year, more than 15,000 children and teenagers are diagnosed with cancer in the United States, according to an estimate from the American Childhood Cancer Organization. AFLAC, which introduced a quacking duck in its commercials nearly two decades ago, has donated just over 4,000 of the robotic ducks to nearly 200 hospitals across the country.

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Though the duck is designed to be a companion for children battling illness, hospital workers say it also gives children a way to express their emotions when their words are not readily available. The robot includes multiple plastic emoji discs, each representing a different emotion. When a disc is placed against the duck’s chest, the robot acts out the emotion, unleashing happy chirps or uneasy moans.

Abdallah calls the robot a "great translator.”

Now 4, his son is able to express how he’s feeling with much more precision, offering his parents small details that were unavailable to them when he was younger (Savi is in his final phase — and the least intensive — of his 3-year chemotherapy plan, doctors say).

“He’s able to say, ‘My bones hurt more than usual,’ for example, which we didn’t know before,” Abdallah said.

But coaxing that information out of a 4-year-old, especially one who is often stoic in the face of pain, isn’t always easy, Abdallah said. That’s when the duck becomes especially useful.

“I’ll say, ‘How are you feeling outside?’ and he’ll pick the emoji that is silly,” Abdallah explained. “And then I’ll say, ‘How are you feeling inside?’ and when he’s feeling horrible he’ll pick up the emoji that show’s he’s feeling really bad.”

“It’s hard to imagine what a 2-year-old is deriving from this whole journey,” he added. “So it’s good for him to be able to emote what he’s feeling also.”

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