The University Record, July 9, 1996

Nursing student connects patient with friends at home, school

Without leaving her bed, bone marrow transplant patient Jillian Bouwens (left) was able to see and talk to her friends and teachers back home, thanks to videoconferencing technology. Jillian is pictured here with her mom, Debra.

By Kristen Lidke Finn
Medical Center Public Relations


For more than a month, Jillian Bouwens' only glimpse of the outdoors was from a single narrow window in a small room on the seventh floor of the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital. Despite the comforting clutter of stuffed animals and colorful, poster-covered walls, the space felt more like a holding cell than a hospital room, says the Grand Rapids-area 12-year-old, who is recovering from a bone-marrow transplant for leukemia.

"It's kind of like prison. I can't go out, I can't see my friends," the sixth-grader lamented earlier this year during her five-week hospitalization as tears rolled down her cheeks, her soft voice barely audible under the drone of a giant air-filtering system in the wall behind her bed.

Because leaving the sterile environment during this fragile recovery period would have put her at risk for a fatal infection, Bouwens' only contact with "life on the outside" during the first few weeks of her stay was through books and magazines, telephone and television. Her only visitors were health care providers and family.

But one morning in mid-April, Bouwens' tears turned to smiles when, thanks to the use of Internet videoconferencing technology, her world expanded at the proverbial touch of a button. Without leaving her hospital bed, soon Bouwens was waving and talking to friends and teachers at her middle school back home whom she hadn't seen in months. They could hear and see her, too, from a personal computer at school.

"You're wearing the shirt we bought together! I'm so glad you're wearing it!" a classmate exclaimed upon seeing a black-and-white image of Bouwens, in shorts and a T-shirt, sitting cross-legged on her hospital bed.

The only equipment needed at each end is a networked computer and an inexpensive video camera. Once connected, sound can be transmitted through a telephone or a computer-adaptable microphone. Parties also can communicate by typing messages over the computer keyboard. The videoconferencing software, called CUSEEME, can be downloaded free from the WorldWide Web. Depending on the software used, videoconferencing activity need not be limited to conversation; some programs also allow parties to listen to music together, "draw" on the same electronic page---even play checkers.

"It's all low-cost, consumer-level technology. It's out there, it exists, and it's very easy to integrate into the clinical setting," says project director Adem Arslanovski, a senior nursing student at the School of Nursing. "The PC can be a very therapeutic tool." Nationally, the use of videoconferencing in patient units is quite unique, says Arslanovski, who also is a computer consultant with the College of Engineering.

While he came up with the idea as part of a homework assignment in a senior-year nursing therapies course, his larger goal, he says is "to make kids happy" by connecting them through computers to friends, family and fellow bone-marrow patients.

While the networking project initially involved just two patients in the unit, Arslanovski envisions the implementation of a system that will allow all U-M pediatric bone-marrow patients to connect not only with their schools, but also with each other and their family members at home.

"Imagine being isolated in a hospital room, feeling nauseated, extremely tired, weak and uncertain about the future. On top of that, you're losing your hair and don't feel like doing a thing. This is a time when support is needed most," he says. "This will hopefully be able to uplift patients and provide a little connection and allow them to talk with others going through the same thing."