- Associated Press - Saturday, October 31, 2015

WINSTON SALEM, N.C. (AP) - Five-year-old Gracie clung to her mother’s leg as she walked with her IV pole into the eighth-floor lobby at Brenner Children’s Hospital.

She hesitated, slightly hiding her face, as if unsure what to make of Brenner, a 2-foot-tall, 11-pound robot, who was sitting on a small table.

Gracie’s mother, Jennifer Harrison of China Grove, sat in a chair close to Brenner Robot and put her daughter on her lap.

Then, just before telling them a story, Brenner did something unexpected.

He stood up and said, “Pleasure to meet you, Gracie.”

Gracie looked at her mother in disbelief and started to laugh.

Storytelling isn’t all Brenner Robot can do. He dances, plays games and performs behavioral techniques with children, such as breathing, to help manage pain and anxiety.

“He does really good breathing,” said Cindy Mahan, manager of the Child Life Department at Brenner Children’s Hospital.

His eyes flash and change colors. He can sit, stand and walk on his own, make speeches, tell golf jokes and give soccer demonstrations.

Brenner is also able to help children when they undergo a variety of procedures, including IVs and dressing changes.

“Sometimes we need to get patients up and out of bed either after surgery, or let’s say a burn patient might need to be encouraged to get up and walk,” Mahan said. “We can use Brenner to do that.”

Brenner is a MEDi Robot made by RxRobots Inc., based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. The MEDi Robot has been used at Alberta Children’s Hospital in Canada for the past three years. MEDi Robot was developed using cognitive and behavioral-based research led by Dr. Tanya Beran, the founder of RxRobots.

According to a recent study at Alberta Children’s Hospital, 57 children were given flu vaccinations while interacting with the robot. The research titled “Humanoid Robotics in Health Care: An Exploration of Children’s and Parents’ Emotional Reactions” found that children who interacted with the robot while getting flu vaccinations reported 50 percent less pain than children who did not interact with MEDi Robot.

“It’s really limitless in terms of how we can use this technology to help patients,” Mahan said.

Brenner Robot arrived at Brenner Children’s Hospital, which is part of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, this month as a gift from the Kurtz Family Foundation, based in Lewisville.

Mahan said that the hospital is the first in the United States to have a MEDi Robot available to use with all patients as needed.

She expects Brenner to help young patients cope with the emotional side of being hospitalized.

“That’s really what it’s all about,” Mahan said. “It’s trying to help these kids through stressful experiences and painful experiences.”

She said that there are a lot of devices on the market that offer the opportunity for an alternative focus in entertainment.

“But, I think, what sets Brenner apart is that he has human qualities and children relate to him as if he is human,” Mahan said. “They refer to him as ‘him’ or ‘he,’ even the first time that they meet him.”

In addition to Brenner Robot, the hospital is getting a 3-D sensory unit that is also aimed at helping “young patients feel less overwhelmed when it comes to the medical conditions and procedures they face,” Brenner Children’s Hospital said in a statement.

The portable 3D Interactive V-pod Sensory, created by Amazing Interactives, projects images accompanied by soothing music throughout an exam or procedure room. During procedures, children can fly with birds and butterflies or take a hot air balloon ride with a hippo. They can enjoy the interactive 3-D effects or control them with the help of additional hand-held devices.

The V-pod was made possible through the efforts of Christin Siscoe, assistant nurse manager at Brenner Children’s who requested the device on Anddit, a crowdfunding website.

With funding from The Monday Life, a national nonprofit organization, and other donors on Anddit, Siscoe raised enough funds to buy the device. Joey McMahon, the founder and chief executive of The Monday Life, and the V-pod’s inventor plan to deliver the device to Brenner Children’s later this month.

Arthur Kurtz and his wife, Suzy, said in a statement that they saw the MEDi Robot in a television news segment as it was being used in Canada and wanted to help bring the technology to Brenner Children’s.

“We were so impressed that we saw a natural fit for the MEDi Robot and Brenner Children’s Hospital,” said the Kurtzes. “Taking some degree of stress off these young patients would be so helpful, and we wanted to be a part of the solution.”

Mahan said that Brenner’s manufacturer can customize the robot’s functions to fit procedures at Brenner Children’s Hospital.

She is requesting that he be able to sing “Happy Birthday” to children.

“We celebrate birthdays here all the time,” Mahan said.

Gracie, who has been in and out of Brenner Children’s Hospital since August for tests to check her kidney functions and other medical conditions, said her favorite part about meeting Brenner was having him say her name.

“He’s awesome,” her mother said.

Jennifer Harrison called their time with Brenner Robot comforting, saying that Gracie hasn’t been her happy self recently.

“It’s been a long, hard road for the past two months watching her go through that,” Harrison said of all the IVs and catheters her daughter has had in the hospital.

“It’s the only thing that has made her really smile since we’ve been here,” she said of Brenner Robot.

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