VGo helps put boy, 7, at the head of his class

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Allergies keep boy out of school, but with VGo, he's at head of his class

BY: T.J. Pignataro | The Buffalo News

Devon Carrow delivers notes and attendance papers from Dawn Voelker's second-grade classroom to the main office at Winchester Elementary School in West Seneca.

He meets and greets fellow classmates at the entrance to the school building before the morning bell.

And he leads his class in the Pledge of Allegiance.

But he does it from his home, about five miles away on Lake Avenue in Orchard Park.

Devon, 7, has allergies that are so severe he is not able to sit in Voelker's classroom.

So, he uses a "VGo" robot to traverse Winchester's halls, to talk with his teacher and fellow classmates and to learn just as any other second-grader does - only remotely, from a classroom set up in his home.

"He is really nice to us," says classmate Jason Green, 7.

"And, he's very smart," adds Riley Boody, also 7, ?finishing Jason's sentence. "Every time the teacher asks us something, Devon puts his light on and answers. And, he's funny."

When Devon began using VGo in January, he was among the first students in the nation to utilize the special mobile technology that was envisioned as a way for business leaders to keep track of inventory remotely.

Now the innovation is quickly attracting the attention of educators. Districts in Colorado, Arkansas and the Pittsburgh area are also now putting the $5,000 robot to use, assisting students who have special needs so they can participate in the classroom with fellow students.

"It's not called 'VGo' in the school - it's 'Devon,'?" said his mother, René Carrow, who lauds Winchester's faculty, staff and students for their eagerness to make Devon a part of their school community. "The only thing that's different is Devon is not in the classroom. He's required to do everything every other kid does in the class.

"He doesn't get any specialized individual attention."

Devon has his own desk in the classroom, belonging to the "Bullfrogs" four-student pod in Voelker's class. He's required to be present and attentive when the other kids are at their desks. There is a high-definition camera on his computer at his home desk and on the top of the VGo machine, which stands at about the height of an elementary student and is on wheels, making it mobile, much like a Segway.

From home, Devon manipulates his computer equipment, which sends wireless signals to the VGo, enabling him to see Voelker, the chalkboard and the other students in his class as well as to move about the classroom and the school.

"He's very attentive and he pays attention. He's a good listener," Voelker said of Devon's interaction with her and the class. "It is not 'just a computer,' it is Devon. He's a student just like everyone else is."

Airborne allergies

Devon was a few months old and his mother had just finished making a Christmas-time batch of pizzelles - an Italian pastry- when she got the first inkling something wasn't right with Devon.

"I kissed him ... and he blew up with hives," said Carrow, explaining the event led to a series of visits to the pediatrician and allergist's offices. They determined her infant had severe allergies to peanuts, milk, eggs and other food products.

The roster of Devon's diagnoses show he suffers from eosinophilic esophagitis disease - an allergic inflammatory response in the esophagus - along with anaphylactic shock syndrome, respiratory distress syndrome and asthma.

The severity of airborne allergies jerked from hypothetical into real-life panic three months after the first incident, when Devon was accidentally exposed to peanuts during a visit to his godparents' home.

"That night, we wound up in the hospital with an oxygen tent on him," Carrow said.

More than a dozen other times Carrow has had to treat her son with one or more epinephrine auto-injectors and then call for an ambulance.

"It's not a cure, it's almost like giving someone who had a heart attack an aspirin," Carrow said of the EpiPen. "We go to the emergency room a lot."

With severe allergies to nuts, dairy, meats and numerous other foods, Devon is on an extremely limiteddiet.

"It's easier to tell you what he can have than what he can't," his mother said.

Devon still drinks infant formula, for instance. He's graduated from a bottle to his favorite Thomas the Tank Engine cup. But, in order to get the requisite dietary proteins and iron, Devon drinks hypoallergenic Neocate for breakfast, lunch, dinner and again at night.

"Basically, if he didn't have the Neocate, he probably wouldn't survive," Carrow said.

Otherwise, Devon's diet is confined to potato, corn and apple products.

"My kid can eat french fries for breakfast," quipped Carrow before returning to a more serious tone.

Every ingredient of every product, she said, must be checked before Devon can be allowed to eat it. Anything less could be fatal.

"I have to read everything, very, very carefully," said Carrow.

Taking precautions

Suffice to say, the family takes a lot of precautions.

Among other things, they have:

. Acquired a 29-foot long trailer for Devon - a Webelos-level Boy Scout - to accompany his pack on camping outings while other scouts camp in tents outside.

. Brought their own popcorn to the movie theater. There, they also stake out spots in the top row, covering seats with sheets to avoid airborne or other contamination.

. Required any of Devon's neighborhood friends with pets or other potential allergic contaminants who visit his home to first change their clothes and shower.

. Torn out the carpeting in the home, replacing it with hardwood flooring.

"I have had to change everything in the house," Carrow said.

Sometimes even with all that caution, Devon gets extremely sick.

Like three years ago on Mother's Day. The family was enjoying a brand of popcorn that Devon had happily eaten many times before only to later learn the manufacturer had altered its production process, causing the corn to come in contact with peanut residue at the factory.

"He turned blue and his eyes rolled in the back of his head," said Carrow, recounting Devon's first of three visits to the intensive care unit at Buffalo's Women & Children's Hospital.

After they threatened the popcorn maker with legal action, the manufacturer agreed to place a disclaimer on the product warning about possible peanut contact, according to Carrow.

It was at that time the family knew Devon wouldn't be able to attend school in person.

"He's a walking time bomb," said Carrow, who has a degree in social work but now seldom leaves Devon's side. When she does, her mother, Donna Carrow, takes care of him. Donna Carrow has since moved into the family's home with her daughter, Devon and Devon's 9-year-old brother, Dillon.

Devon also suffers from severe skin allergies. His hands get red and scaly easily. They become so irritated, sometimes the skin splits open and he can't pick up a pen to write. Devon used to wear socks on his hands but, his mother said, as he's gotten older he's become embarrassed to do that.

Even the smell of fabric softener can cause his throat to close.

"He's almost like the boy in a bubble," Carrow said. "I try to let him do some things. I want him to have the best life he could have."

"It's been a struggle for a long time. Do I take some risks with him? Yeah, I do. Because I want him to be a kid. I don't take unnecessary risks. I take minimal risks to see he has as regular as normal."

Common ground

Devon is one of a few dozen students throughout the US using VGo to attend schoolFaculty and staff at Winchester quickly embraced giving Devon the sort of life envisioned by his mother.

There was some early arm-twisting with West Seneca Central School District administrators over Devon's education, Carrow acknowledged. She was dissatisfied with Devon's hour-per-day kindergarten home-schooling program and sought better instruction for her son.

"If you don't push the school system, they're not going to give things," Carrow said. "(You) have to be persistent. Don't ever give up. have the same right as other children to get an education."

The Carrows and the district eventually struck some common ground.

Enter Kristin Myers, the district's director of special education.

Myers worked with the Carrow family to facilitate the acquisition of the VGo system. When Winchester Principal Kathleen Brachmann and first-grade teacher Jennifer Szewc received word about Devon, they pushed to get him as a student.

"There was no hesitation," Brachmann said.

"I don't know if you'd get that every place. That's just how we are here," she said. "A lot of people look at it as a challenge, we look at it as a great opportunity. We feel like it's an honor to have him here."

After being home-schooled in kindergarten through another district elementary school, Devon started in Szewc's first-grade class at Winchester in January. The transition was seamless, they said.

"One of the things about is Devon could turn and talk," Szewc said. "I could say, 'could you go join me on the carpet?' and he would."

"When he would turn on his light, it was like another hand up in the room," Szewc added.

Devon has two teachers who assist him from his house - Sheri Voss and Mary Jo Kempf. His mother set aside a room in the home as a dedicated classroom and the teachers made it look every bit the part. Besides his computer equipment, there are shelves stacked with some favorite books - "Skippyjon Jones," "Thomas the Tank Engine," "If You Give a Cat a Cupcake" along with his school books.

Walls are adorned with a dry-erase board detailing Devon's daily schedule. There are placards with the alphabet, numbers, verbs and adverbs - just like in a real schoolroom.

Devon is fond of learning and is meeting state education benchmarks, school officials said.

Besides "a very bright child," Myers called Devon "an inspiration for everyone who comes into contact with him."

Devon actively participates in his classes, jokes with classmates, "walks" through school hallways on the way to check books out of the library and participates on stage in leadership assemblies at the school. The only two things Devon doesn't currently do with his classmates are gym and lunch.

Brachmann said the wireless connection in the cafeteria is limited but school officials hope to remedy that and invite Devon to lunch for additional socialization.

Still, through the eyes of Devon's classmates, he's one of them, according to Winchester educators. That was silently proven last spring, when his first-grade class made Devon some "get-well" artwork after a nearly fatal allergic reaction again landed him in Women & Children's ICU.

"They drew a picture of a boy," said Brachmann, explaining the class identified with Devon as a person and not as the VGo machine.

It was an emotional day at Winchester. Brachmann said it proved the class accepted Devon as one of them and, she added, was also a testament to the performance of Szewc and the school's staff.

"You learn to be a better teacher," Brachmann said about unique opportunities that arise like this one. "I think our lives are much richer because of it."

A daily struggle

"Will he grow out of it?"

It's the most common question Carrow said she's asked.

By everyone.

And Carrow has no good answer.

"I would hope he would," she said, adding that if recent events are any indication, it's starting to seem more and more unlikely. "Every episode now is getting worse and worse."

Despite the positive outcome with Devon's education, the boy's life is still a daily struggle, his mother said.

Devon is on a daily regimen of various prescription medications, including steroids.

"He's afraid to eat because he's afraid of getting sick," Carrow said.

The family feels it has exhausted the expertise of the medical community here and in the Cincinnati area - where the Carrows have also sought treatment for Devon - so, they say, they're placing their trust in Dr. Hugh A. Sampson, professor of Pediatrics and Immunobiology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.

"They want to try to put him in a research center," said Carrow, explaining Devon could be there by mid-November.

In two weeks, she said, Devon is scheduled to visit Women & Children's for a "whitefish skin-test." If he shows no allergy, it's likely the fish would be introduced into Devon's diet.

Carrow said doctors at Mount Sinai are hopeful that could be a way to introduce high levels of protein into Devon's diet along with an encouraging herbal regimen that Sampson has developed that may be able to help Devon "live better" with his allergies.

All of those treatments must take place in the confines of the New York City hospital, she said.

"They have to be nearby in case something happens," said Carrow.