Aflac ducks delivered free to 23 children with SCD, cancer in 2 states

Sports legends Nick Saban, Dawn Staley join in company's special events

Andrea Lobo, PhD avatar

by Andrea Lobo, PhD |

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Children’s of Alabama hosted a special event, in collaboration with famed football coach Nick Saban, to deliver a flock of social robot ducks — the My Special Aflac Duck, free to certain pediatric patients — to 18 children in the state with sickle cell disease (SCD) and cancer.

The cuddly social robot uses medical play and lifelike movement, and mimics emotions, to help comfort young children during their disease journey.

The robot ducks, provided by the American insurance provider Aflac, are in the image of its official mascot and are “designed to accompany kids in and out of treatment,” according to the company’s webpage.  The toy has a host of accessories, which include a stethoscope, syringe, and a pulse oximeter, used in human patients to measure oxygen levels in the blood.

Recipient children at the Birmingham medical center event participated in a demonstration of the social robot, followed by a scavenger hunt — which included a clue reveal by the University of Alabama coach and his philanthropist wife, Terry Saban — to meet their companion, according to a press release from Aflac.

“As a coach, I’ve learned the team wins when everyone comes together, and that is what Aflac has been doing for children with cancer and blood disorders for nearly 28 years. I am proud to be a part of this team,” Nick Saban said, calling Aflac “a company of integrity.”

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Events for children held in Alabama and Virginia

Five other children in Virginia with SCD and cancer also were gifted the soft cuddly companion in a similar special event that counted the participation of Dawn Staley, a former basketball player at the University of Virginia, and now the South Carolina women’s basketball head coach.

That event was held at UVA Children’s in Charlottesville, according to another Aflac press release. It also featured a scavenger hunt, this time with the clue reveal from Staley.

All of the children at both events also had the opportunity to engage in several activities together with their families, including creating a birth certificate and a beaded necklace for their new Aflac ducks.

“The past year working with Aflac confirmed for me that caring on purpose is in Aflac’s DNA and I am honored to continue working with the organization to help close the gaps on and off the court,” said Staley, who has teamed up with Aflac to address equity issues in women’s college sports, including community engagement.

“Aflac and I have a shared passion for giving back to our communities, particularly when it comes to cancer, sickle cell and children. It was great to be back in Charlottesville to deliver My Special Aflac Duck and bring joy to these patients,” said Staley, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and a member of the American Basketball Hall of Fame.

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Aflac ducks now available to children with sickle cell

The duck robot companion was developed by Aflac in partnership with Empath Labs, after 18 months of research with children and their families, as well as healthcare providers.

Initially designed to help children with cancer cope with their treatments, the program was then expanded to include those with SCD last year.

“As a committed ally to children with cancer and blood disorders, Aflac continues our mission to help bring young patients and their families comfort and joy when needed most through My Special Aflac Duck,” said Virgil Miller, Aflac U.S. president.

“Since the program began five years ago, we’ve delivered more than 23,000 ducks to children in the United States, Japan and Northern Ireland through hospitals and disease-focused organizations, free of charge to patients,” Miller said.

Children with cancer or blood disorders, such as sickle cell disease, spend a lot of time at the hospital, which can lead to stress or anxiety for these patients. We are grateful to Aflac and the My Special Aflac Duck program for providing an innovative resource to enhance the care experience for the children and the families we serve.

The duck robot helps children cope in difficult moments, whether during a pain crisis or in times of discomfort while in the hospital or during treatment. The kit provides accessories specially tailored for children with SCD, including a blanket that children can draw on with a water-soluble marker.

The robot also includes smart sensors for perception of lights and sounds, with customizable soundscapes providing soothing sounds of forest, ocean, farm, or an amusement park for use in distraction therapy. It can also emit calming heartbeat and breathing vibrations.

It also includes seven “feeling cards” that can be tapped into a sensor on the duck’s chest so it mimics each emotion in order to help children express their own emotions. There’s also an interactive mobile app for children to virtually bathe and feed their duck.

Each duck costs about $200 to manufacture and deliver. Healthcare professionals, nonprofit organizations, and families can order the duck at no charge for children ages 3 or older with cancer or SCD.

“Children with cancer or blood disorders, such as sickle cell disease, spend a lot of time at the hospital, which can lead to stress or anxiety for these patients,” said Emily Hornak, director of cause marketing, and corporate partnerships at Children’s of Alabama. “We are grateful to Aflac and the My Special Aflac Duck program for providing an innovative resource to enhance the care experience for the children and the families we serve.”

Both events were part of Aflac’s 28-year $168-plus million philanthropic commitment to support children with cancer and blood disorders, according to the company.

“Spending a lot of time in the hospital can be overwhelming for our patients and emotional for their families,” said Michael Engel, UVA Children’s pediatric hematology and oncology division chief, who took part in the Virginia event.

“My Special Aflac Duck will surely bring happiness to children during their treatments and help comfort them at home,” Engel said.