A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Paintsville student stays strong in her studies during leukemia battle with the help of robot, friends

By Ron Daley
Special to KyForward

Despite her battle with leukemia since the fifth grade, Megan Brooke Ferguson’s dream to become a doctor stayed on track with the help of a robot, her teachers and friends at Paintsville Elementary.

Megan, now 15 and a freshman at Paintsville High School, is in remission.

As a 5th grader, she spent over 160 days at Cabell Huntington Hospital in Huntington, WV. Heavy doses of Methotrexate chemotherapy weakened her immune system and made it unwise for her to attend school in 2015.

Megan (center) with her friends Emily Snyder (left) and Hailie Wells (Photo provided)

A robot entered her life, allowing her to continue her education and stay in contact with her friends who formed a “Team Megan” support group.

While she was undergoing treatment, the school district’s Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative (KVEC) innovation coordinator Bryan Auxier obtained a robot. He got the idea to use the robot, purchased through funds by the United States Department of Education “Race to the Top (RTT)” grant, to enable Megan to go to classes.

Megan learned to control the robot’s movement with a smartphone, IPad and her laptop while the Ipad on the robot live-streamed her class to her hospital room or house. Her friends Hailey Wells, Emily Snyder, and others assisted getting the robot to the elevator to change classes.

The robot also allowed her to stay in touch with her friends so she wouldn’t be lonely.

“Being sick and away from your friends is depressing,” Megan explained.

One day she said she wished she could go to lunch with her friends. Arrangements were made for the robot to go to the lunch room and stand by the dining table, so she could interact with her peers.

“I loved lunchtime,” she added.

“I loved the robot. . .it was fun and cool to drive it around. She and her friends did not give the robot a name. Emily and Hailey said they simply saw Megan’s face on the robot’s screen and Megan saw her friends and her teachers.

“I don’t know what I would have done without the robot and my friends,” Megan added.

“We wanted Megan to know we had her back,” said Emily and Hailey. “We are so proud of her.”

Megan, on screen, with her friends Hailie Wells (left) and Emily Snyder (Photo provided)

The support of her teachers, friends and advanced technology enabled her to advance to her freshman year, meeting all required academic standards.

Carolyn Leckie, the school’s home hospital teacher, provided support and instruction. Carolyn is retiring this year after 31 years of teaching.

KVEC Executive Director Dr. Jeff Hawkins honored Megan remotely through the robot in 2016 during the Forging Innovation in Rural Education (FIRE) summit in Pikeville, which was live streamed to thousands of viewers through the organization’s digital platform “The Holler.”

Hawkins presented the award for her dedication to learning by using robot telepresence to attend class.

The RTT grant enabled KVEC to have the largest rollout of Next Generation classroom technology in rural America’s history. The technology was distributed to 100 schools in a geographical area larger than the state of Connecticut in just six weeks.

The school district’s use of “Google Classroom” also was helpful for Megan to keep up in her classes, view documents and submit assignments. “Classroom” is a recent tool in Google Apps for Education that helps teachers create and organize assignments quickly, provide feedback efficiently, and easily communicate with their classes. It helps students organize their work in Google Drive, complete and turn it in, and communicate directly with their teachers and peers. It weaves together Google Docs, Drive and Gmail to help teachers create and collect assignments paperless. They can quickly see who has or hasn’t completed the work and provide direct, real-time feedback to individual students.

Paintsville Independent School District Superintendent David Gibson praised Megan as an inspiration to the school and community adding, “Paintsville Independent has always exemplified what individualized student instruction looks like. We are proud to offer these unique services to all our students.”

Megan says she wants to become a doctor, so she can help others as the doctors helped her.

Asked what advice she wishes to share with others facing a similar illness she says, “Stay strong and not give up.”

She says that her illness matured her and made her more appreciative of life. She has kept her smile which brightens the room. She is continuing physical therapy to address the nerve damage in her legs which causes pain as she stands and walks.

“I will stay strong.”

Ron Daley is the strategic partner lead for the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative (KVEC), a consortium of 22 school districts.

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