Comfort Companions

Published on January 30th, 2019 by Christina Echegaray.


Five-year-old Caroline Lantz finds her very own My Special Aflac Duck, a support friend for children with cancer, as her prize at the end of a scavenger hunt held at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. Photo by Joe Howell.

Patients at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt are being paired with a special support friend on their cancer journey — the My Special Aflac Duck, a high-tech robot that uses medical play, lifelike movement and emotions to engage and help comfort children during their cancer care.

“When we care for children with cancer, we focus on the whole child and family and not just the disease,” said Debra Friedman, MD, director of the Division of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology, and who holds the E. Bronson Ingram Chair of Pediatric Oncology. “My Special Aflac Duck will be an important part of the comprehensive care benefiting children with cancer and their families. Our pediatric cancer program is extremely grateful to Aflac for their generosity in partnering with us in the care of our patients.”

The therapeutic duck, designed by Sproutel, is a social robot to help patients cope with their treatment. The delivery included a demonstration of the supportive components of the robotic duck and how it can serve as a tool for health care professionals to use with their patients.

Following a demonstration of the duck at a surprise event for patients, children and their parents were sent on a fun scavenger hunt, finding clues and visiting various locations at the hospital, eventually leading them to the discovery of their very own My Special Aflac Duck.

“The duck delivery in Nashville marks an important milestone in our mission to get My Special Aflac Duck into the arms of every child newly diagnosed with cancer in America and help them during their often challenging cancer journey,” said Aflac Chairman and CEO Dan Amos. “It has been a joy to witness the smiles on kids’ faces when they receive their own comforting companion. We at Aflac, our employees and independent agents, are honored to provide those memorable moments to the brave patients being treated at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt.”

Children’s Hospital is the fourth health care facility where Aflac has hosted a special event to distribute the free ducks for children (ages 3-13) diagnosed with cancer.

In addition to My Special Aflac Duck, Sproutel has created a companion app available on the Apple App Store and Google Play. The app can be downloaded on smartphones and tablets free of charge. Additional features of My Special Aflac Duck include:

  • Emotional expression: Seven radio-frequency identification-enabled feeling cards help children communicate; the duck acts out a given feeling when that feeling card is tapped to its chest.
  • Medical and nurturing play: A chemo-therapy port allows children to mirror their care experiences via play, giving them a sense of control during the process. The duck’s no-cost companion app allows users to “bathe, feed and give it medicine” via augmented reality.
  • Music, dancing and nuzzling: The duck dances when music is played. Customizable sounds include gentle waves, wind and a farm.
  • Breathing and heartbeat: The duck produces a naturalistic heartbeat and deep breathing, which caregivers can incorporate into calming routines and exercises.
  • Batteries and accessories: Provided so it is ready to use out of the box.
  • Convenience: A removable exterior skin, which can be washed to adhere to hospital hygiene standards.

 – by Jessica Pasley