Below is an excerpt from the LA Daily news Dated Today October 21 2009.
Robot gets star treatment from sick kids
Michael Shahidi , 8, enjoys a visit from droid, R5D4, at Providence Saint Joseph Tarzana Medical Center. Jerry Chevalier, behind, built the robot and takes it to entertain the children in the pediatrics section of the hospital. (Dean Musgrove/Staff Photographer)
At first, the kids didn’t know what to make of the surprise visitor who stopped by their hospital room on Tuesday.
R5-D4, his name tag said.
Nathan Ellsworth and Xavyer Arteaga sat up in their beds in the pediatric unit at Providence Tarzana Medical Center, staring at the droid trying to shake their hands and make them smile.
What was this odd-looking robot, making funny noises and spinning around on the floor?
Out in the hallway, a few of the older kids peeked in and smiled. Eight-year-old Michael Shahidi was sure it was R2-D2 from the “Star Wars” trilogy.
Not quite, but almost.
The man pushing the buttons of the droid’s remote control knew exactly what it was like to be a kid lying in a hospital bed for weeks or months on end. Scary, miserable and boring.
Jerry Chevalier has Crohn’s disease and spent a large part of his childhood lying in hospital beds, passing the time between doctors’ visits making model airplanes and spaceships.
“I have an empathy for kids in the hospital,” the 49-year-old nurse said. “I know what it’s like to be sick and miserable, away from your family for months at a time.”
So a couple of days a week, Chevalier and R5-D4 stop by the pediatric ward to give these kids “an escape from reality for a few minutes.”
Sometimes they smile, sometimes they laugh. Sometimes, they just lie there staring at the wall and ignoring him.
“You go in slow, not expecting anything,” Chevalier says. “What you don’t want to do is scare them. If a kid is sad, I make R5-D4 sad, too. It draws them out. If they’re not interested, I just get out of there. But most of the kids love to see him.”
The smile on Michael Shahidi’s face lit up the hallway when he saw the droid for the first time. Michael suffers from diabetes and has been through some tough times, but he’s getting better, his parents say.
“Michael loves robots, and having one visit him in the hospital really cheered him up. Look at that smile,” said Alex Shahidi, Michael’s father.
Chevalier has seen that smile on hundreds of sick kids since he started making the rounds with R5-D4 a few months ago, after moving here from Dallas.
It took him two years to make this droid and others in the garage of his home, and he has honed his skills to professional levels.
“Depending on which button I push, the kids can tell by the tones coming out whether R5-D4 is happy, sad or angry,” he said. “They don’t have to know what he’s saying.
“It’s part of the appeal of `Star Wars.’ You don’t have to understand the language, just listen to the tones and you know how he feels.”
And R5-D4 feels happy, because that’s his job.
For a few minutes, this little droid making the funny noises helps sick kids forget where they are.
Dennis McCarthy’s column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday.