Student with chronic migranes becomes first to use VGo in NC

Max LaDue, a seventh-grader at The School for Creative Studies, missed more than 100 days of school last year due to chronic stomach migraines, a condition that causes severe abdominal cramping and leaves the sufferer feeling weak and drained.

Even for a bright kid like LaDue who is motivated to do well in school, missing what amounts to a little more than half of the school year due to illness can make it to tough to keep the academics in focus.

But in spite of his challenges, LaDue has managed to do pretty well with the help of his homebound teacher Mikeah Sleigh, who visits his home in the Parkwood subdivision several times a week.

The help that Sleigh provides has enabled LaDue to stay on top of his classwork in core subjects such as English, math, science and social studies.

Still, there has been something missing for the 12-year-old who has been troubled by the stomach migraines for about four years now.

"I tell people my son goes to school as a robotic telepresence, and you see their minds about to explode," said Max's mother, Juli LaDue. "It's the most wonderful thing that could ever happen to a sick kid."

While being schooled at home by Sleigh, LaDue has missed the important social connections that are an integral part of the learning experience.

LaDue’s situation improved dramatically on the social front a few months ago when he became the first student in North Carolina to use an interactive telerobot to attend class.

The VGo is housed at the school and LaDue uses a laptop while at home to steer the telerobot through the hallways and to his classrooms.

The VGo telerobot allows LaDue to see, hear, talk and move around the classroom as though he were there.

Instead of raising his hand when he knows the answer to a question, LaDue clicks on his keyboard and a series of LED lights began to blink.

“It feels like I’m with the other students, learning like they are,” LaDue said Monday.

While there are occasional glitches because of the nature of Wi-Fi connections, LaDue said the VGo has enabled him to accelerate his learning.

 “Honestly, because of the VGo, I’ve been learning at a much faster pace than I would be if we didn’t have the VGo and we were just looking up lessons on line,” LaDue said. “Without the VGo, I would still be pretty much on three-week’s-ago lessons.”

Two students -- Michael Guilmette and Bethany Dodson, both seventh-graders -- have agreed to help keep the VGo charged and to pick it up at the school’s office when it’s time for LaDue to use it, which is usually in the afternoons.

On Monday, it was Dodson’s turn to escort Max to class.

“I get to talk to him now,” Dodson said, noting that the two became friends last year.

"Being there makes it much easier than not being there. I'm a very hands-on kind of person," Max said. "I feel like I'm very lucky to get such an experience, because otherwise I'd just be sitting here 12 hours a day doing absolutely nothing."

Guilmette said the other students have responded positively to VGo, often stopping in the hallway to say hello to LaDue who they can see in the video screen atop the telerobot. And he can in turn see them.

The idea to launch a VGo pilot program in Durham came from Richard Lemke, principal of the school district’s Hospital School, who read about the telerobot being used by children with chronic illnesses in other states.

Lemke, who was on hand Monday for a demonstration of the robot, said it has become increasingly important to have such a tool on hand to keep students with chronic illnesses connected to school because the social aspect of attending school has intrinsic value to the learning process.

Michelle Gonzales-Green, the media assistant for the Hospital School, said each robot cost about $7,000. A $5,000 maintenance plan brings the total cost to $12,000.

Gonzales-Green said the school district has three robots. LaDue is using one and a student at Creekside Elementary is using another.  

She said eventually the students will be able to use the VGo and largely bypass the homebound lessons, which will make them even more economical.

But even at the current cost, Gonzales-Green said it’s tough to put a price on the benefit of enabling homebound students to make those important social connections.

“It’s priceless,” Gonzales-Green said.

LaDue’s parents, Drake LaDue and Juli LaDue, agreed that the technology that allows Max to attend school over the Internet using a telerobot has been a game-changer for their son.

No longer is Max LaDue going to school only to have to return home a short time later due to health issues.

“He was going there [to school] and three hours later back at home,” said Drake LaDue.

"I tell people my son goes to school as a robotic telepresence, and you see their minds about to explode," said Max's mother, Juli LaDue. "It's the most wonderful thing that could ever happen to a sick kid."

Juli LaDue said that VGo allows Max to do more than just homework.

“It means that my child, who would otherwise just be at home and doing homework, can do more than homework,” Juli LaDue said. “It’s like being in homework prison because that’s all he was doing.”

Juli LaDue said Max is sick about seven months out of the year, and in addition to the abdominal cramps and pains, suffers bouts of severe vomiting.

The LaDues had high praise for Lemke and the other DPS administrators who were instrumental in bringing VGo to the family’s attention.

“When Dr. Lemke explained VGo, I said this is the answer to all of my prayers,” Juli LaDue said. 

"I think what that does is it prepares him for a transition back to school," explained Hospital School Principal Richard Lemke. "He now feels a part of a school."



Learn more about the VGo program in Durham Public Schools:

Read the article from The Herald Sun

Watch the video from ABC-11

Images courtesy of The Herald-Sun | Christine T. Nguyen