Cat Scans

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// by Joseph Allen

If you’ve been forced to stay any length of time in Baptist, St. Vincent’s, Mayo, or any other hospital here on the First Coast, then you know one of the cardinal rules of hospital stays—waiting for nurses and doctors can be boring and even reading or watching television doesn’t always help pass the time.

Now imagine you’re a nine-year-old girl in medical isolation at Wolfson Children’s Hospital because you’ve just had a bone marrow transplant. Your friends can’t visit and your parents are wearing germ-free “space suits” just to sit next to your bed.

In the past, playing with a dog, cat, ferret, or any other pet would have been out of the question. Thankfully, technology has come up with a rather innovative way to let chronically ill children at Wolfson have play dates with furry-friends at the Jacksonville Humane Society.

Wolfson’s “Playing With Cats” therapy program first came to fruition when Family Support Service Manager Pat Kirkland had the opportunity to apply for a $15,000 grant from the Mattel Toy Company to improve the lives of critically ill children during their stays at the hospital.

“All kids lose a sense of control when they’re in the hospital,” Kirkland says. “They can’t see their friends when they want to. They can’t play outside and they have to see doctors at anytime during the day or night.

“So I started thinking outside of the box on how to give chidlren back some sense of control while they’re staying here in the hospital,” she recalls. “I started researching on the Internet and found Scott Harris and his company Reachin.”

Reachin is an Idaho-based technology firm that specializes in developing the remote hardware and software that can allow an individual in the States to move a piece of equipment in a warehouse anywhere in the world.

“Our iPet hardware and software is actually an unexpected spin-off of our main product line,” says Harris. “One day back in 2010, my chief engineer came up to me and said, ‘Scott, you’re going to think I’m crazy; but when I was working at home on moving some equipment in an overseas warehouse, my cat jumped up on the desk and was totally fascinated by the process. I think he wanted to play.’”

Intrigued by an engineer’s cat who was curious about heavy equipment, Harris decided to put feline fascination and human ingenuity to a test. Would humans be interested in remotely playing with cats and would the cats respond and play with the unseen humans?

Scott contacted a nearby animal shelter in Boise and they were willing to serve as the test bed for adapting Reachin’s technology to let people all across the globe play with cats. “Nearly five years later, the website has had over two million visits from people in more than 170 countries,” Scott says. “There was even one person over in England who wanted to adopt one of the shelter cats she remotely played with.”

So with that success, it was only natural for Reachin to spin-off the remote operating technology into iPet—a hardware/software package that lets individual play with cats, dogs, ferrets, and other pets at home or in shelters.

Wolfson partnered with the Jacksonville Humane Society six months ago to bring the Playing With Cats program to hospital-bound patients.

“We are proud to expand the partnership with Wolfson using [Reachin’s] iPet Companion System so that all patients may benefit from the healing power of animals,” says Denise Deisler, executive director of the Jacksonville Humane Society.

To bring the pet therapy program to life, Reachin used Wolfson’s high-speed data networks, high-definition cameras, and interactive toys. Others wishing to log on and play with cats at the Jacksonville Humane Society’s shelter are likely to be disappointed, though. “It’s only available to children who are patients at Woflson,” Deisler says.

“Young patients—not their parents, grandparents or other family members and friends—at Wolfson are the only ones who can play with the cats,” says Kirkland. “They have a laptop and are in complete control of how they want to play.”