As published in the San Jose Mercury News, June 19,1997
Written by Michelle Levander
Photos by Barry Gutierrez

Sick kids shine in virtual world

Starbright links ill children around country for talk, play

Ryan Turner’s father wheels him up to the computer terminal in the recreation room at Lucile Salter Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford, an IV pole loaded with pain killing and antibiotic drugs trailing behind.

Tired and medicated, Ryan, 7, a leukemia patient, nonetheless can barely wait to sit down at the terminal and start talking. First he types a few messages using the keyboard.  He turns around to ask his father for help.

“How do you spell leukemia?” he asks.  He clicks on a small icon and activates the video conferencing function of this very special computer, a pilot version of a virtual playground that could eventually link ill children at hospitals across the country.

Suddenly, the wan face of Shawn, a cystic fibrosis patient in Pittsburgh, appears on the screen.  The two chat about favorite baseball players and hockey teams.  Football, Ryan explains, is not his sport.  Ryan holds a giant plastic spider up to the camera.  It looms large on Shawn’s viewing screen.

The two boys are communicating thanks to Sartbright World, a nonprofit foundation dreamed up by Steven Spielberg which links children’s hospitals so that kids can play interactive, games, explore special worlds and, most importantly, escape the isolation that accompanies serious illness.  Now reaching the end of its two-year test, the program serves seven hospitals with donated computers, phone lines and other technology.  Eventually, its leading corporate sponsors-Intel Corp., Sprint, Tandem Computers and software developer Worlds, Inc.-hope to be able to link the most seriously ill children directly from their hospital beds.

Above, Karpanty spends time promoting positive interaction with other kids while Ryan is online.  
Photos by Barry Gutierrez

Lisa Karpanty, a recreational therapist at Children’s, is a fan of the program.
It provides the children with a safe way to talk about illness and a way to develop that social skills that suffer during long hospital stays, she said.  Choosing imaginary characters to represent them inside Starbright’s worlds, strange colorful creatures dubbed avatars, also allows them to make decisions and exercise control in an environment when others are often making all the choices.

Plus, the system has some celebrity participants, Spielberg or his children often drop in as the character ET. Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf’s avatar is a bear with four starts, and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman has an avatar that looks a lot like him.

One frequent user at Children’s has developed a new persona for himself in a virtual world called “Galactor.”  His avatar is a Samurai Rabbit.  When he video - conferences, with other children, he puts on a yellow hospital mask to maintain his unique identity.

Online or video – conferencing, the children talk about everything and nothing.  Susan Prosser, Starbright’s technical manager, who is based in Seattle, has become a chum to many-a job perhaps as important as her official role providing technical support.

Below, Ryan's dad ushers him back to his room, IV line in tow, after spending an hour in Starbright World.

Photos by Barry Gutierrez

On a recent weekday, Ryan’s chat with Shawn reveals the special world that ill children occupy.  Each ask each other how they are doing in school.  Unspoken is how many days they’ve missed.  Ryan’s doing well.  He’s a first-grader doing third-grade work.

“I’m in 10th and it (school) is hard,” Shawn says.  “I’m supposed to get my driver’s license today buy I’m in the hospital.”

Asked about why he likes the program, Ryan says it makes him better informed.

“If you talk to someone that has something and you have the same thing, you get to know what’s going to happen, what’s going to happen to you,” he said.

Even when he’s sick, he said, it feels better to be playing on Starbright World.

“I’m getting to meet new people and to learn about new people,” he said.  “I like the worlds.”

As published in the San Jose Mercury News, June 19,1997
Written by Michelle Levander
Photos by Barry Gutierrez

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