VGo keeps boy with leukemia in touch with classroom

Robot keeps boy with leukemia in touch with classroom

April 25, 2015 | By Greg Watry | New Jersey Herald

WANTAGE — In Deb Puskas' kindergarten classroom at the Clifton E. Lawrence School, 19 children entered from the hallway and hung up their coats. Awaiting their arrival was a sleek white VGo robot controlled by student Anthony Longo, a 6-year-old who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in January.

“Anthony's here and he's ready to do center time with you,” Puskas said to the class.

The students gathered around the robot, which is outfitted with a moveable camera, wheels and a screen displaying Anthony.

“Hi, Anthony,” piped 5-year-old Jenna Osterhoudt, a small blonde girl in pink glasses.

According to Puskas, the robot is controlled from home by Anthony via an iPad. As center time (a half-hour of free play that reinforces educational subjects) started, Anthony played a game with two other children at a table.

“I'll do it” for Anthony, a small boy said when it was Anthony's turn. “What color do you want, Anthony?”

For about an hour each day, Anthony uses the VGo in the classroom, Puskas said. The robot's been in use since about two weeks ago, when the students returned from spring break. Puskas recalled that one of the first activities was re-enacting “The Story of the Three Bears.”

“Anthony was the little baby bear, and he just chimed right in,” she said. “It was just a wonderful way to start out this whole thing.”

Principal William Kochis said the school received the VGo through a grant from the Valerie Fund Children's Center at Morristown Medical Center. The VGo will be at the school until the end of the school year.

“He's still a part of our school, and he's still a part of our family,” Kochis said of Anthony.

Anthony's grandfather Scott Sargent, 58, of Wantage, vividly remembers when the family found out Anthony was sick. On Jan. 18, the weather was icy and Anthony, who lives with his grandparents, woke up with a 104-degree fever. He was driven to Newton Medical Center's emergency room, but sent to Goryeb Children's Hospital in Morristown when he developed sepsis, a “potentially life-threatening complication of infection,” according to the Mayo Clinic.

“Doctors told us that something had made his immune system not respond correctly,” Sargent said.

It wasn't long before he was diagnosed with leukemia.

“You're floored” and “you're dealing with so much so fast,” Sargent said, when one finds out a grandchild is sick. But the doctors “made it clear that this was not a death sentence.”

Anthony's other grandfather, Bob Longo, of Denton, Md., was at a movie when he heard the news his grandson was sick.

“I dropped the phone and started crying,” the 51-year-old Longo recalled. “It's news you can't rationalize” and “you immediately go to the dark side. You immediately think the negative.”

But as Longo soon learned, the world is full of compassionate people, and his grandson, he said, is a strong boy. He was met with support from his coworkers and the local community in Bridgeville, Del., where he works as the chief of police.

“It is just incredible the amount of support that has come from people in Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey,” he said.

“He's my hero, he's my inspiration,” he said of his grandson. “This kid is fighting every day.”

An avenue of support comes directly from the Sussex-Wantage Regional School District. For five hours every week, Puskas visits Anthony's household to ensure the boy is up-to-date with his lessons.

“It's more than five hours. She goes above and beyond,” Sargent said.

“We want to make sure he has everything,” Puskas said. “He's going into first grade next year, and we're really excited about that.”

“The grandparents have been wonderful allowing this to be part of his life,” Kochis said. “They really understand the importance of education and the importance for him to be here in some aspect.”

Anthony is in the midst of a 19-week treatment for his disease, Sargent said. Every Wednesday, he goes to Morristown, where he has blood work done, and every three weeks he goes in for three days of chemotherapy.

Anthony celebrated his sixth birthday April 19. Since the diagnosis, Sargent said his grandson has gone from watching SpongeBob SquarePants to Discovery Health.

“He'll be done with this phase ... of treatment just after school lets out,” Sargent said. “We still have to be careful with cold and flu season. That's why he's not allowed back in school yet.”

Puskas still visits Anthony at home for schooling. As Sargent said, the robot “can't replace the teacher.”

“But it keeps him involved on a social level,” he said.

“We're so grateful that the school has allowed this and everyone is behind his education continuing,” he added. “God bless everyone.”