My Special Aflac Duck brings cheer to SCD patients

Robotic playmates gifted to youngsters at children's hospital in Albuquerque

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by Mary Chapman |

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A child with a ponytail seated at a table while drawing a picture.

To help heighten awareness of sickle cell disease (SCD) and pediatric cancers, while bringing comfort and relief to patients, the supplemental insurance provider Aflac recently gifted its My Special Aflac Duck social robot to children at the University of New Mexico (UNM) Children’s Hospital in Albuquerque.

The delivery helps to celebrate National Sickle Cell Awareness Month and Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, both of which were observed in September.

Aflac and UNM Children’s Hospital hosted a special event for delivering the cuddly, life-sized robotic playmates that are designed for play and interaction, and to bring cheer to patients living with the conditions.

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“We are excited that Aflac has brought My Special Aflac Ducks to Albuquerque for our children,” Shirley Abraham, MD, hematologist and oncologist at UNM Children’s Hospital, said in a press release. “It is extremely important for kids facing cancer and sickle cell disease to have the ability to express their feelings and use medical play to better understand what is happening both in the hospital and at home.”

During the event, attendees took part in a My Special Aflac Duck demonstration before going on a scavenger hunt, ending with each child meeting their personal robotic companion. Next, patients and their families celebrated the introductions with activities such as coloring and creating a birth certificate and beaded necklace for their new, huggable playfellow.

How the robotic duck interacts with youngsters

The social robot uses medical play, mimicked emotions, and lifelike movement to engage and help soothe young patients during their disease journey. The duck debuted in 2018 following some 18 months of research involving children, their families, and healthcare providers.

The original goal was to help young cancer patients, but last year, the program was expanded to include young people with SCD, which affects more than 100,000 U.S. residents. The aim is to help youngsters handle treatments, hospitalizations, or other challenging situations, with a focus on emotional health.

My Special Aflac Duck has given comfort and joy to more than 24,000 children across the United States, Japan and Northern Ireland during what are often incredibly challenging circumstances,” said Virgil Miller, Aflac U.S. president.

“Our $170 million commitment to children and families facing pediatric cancer and blood disorders, spanning more than 28 years, is best illustrated through this extraordinary resource to help families when they need it most. It is an incredibly rewarding program, and we are pleased to spread some joy today with these children in New Mexico,” Miller added.

The social robot also features an interactive app that permits children to feed and bathe it virtually, offering customizable soundscapes that produce calming sounds and visuals. The app has smart sensors that generate light and sounds, including a relaxing heartbeat, and breathing vibrations.

Providers, support groups, families can order for free

My Special Aflac Duck, designed for children ages 3 and older who have been diagnosed with SCD or cancer, may be ordered for free by healthcare providers, support organizations, and families.

Each kit provides an accessory backpack, “feeling” cards that children can use to express emotions, a soundscape spaceship, medical play accessories, and a port-a-cath. The sickle cell package comes with accessories specifically tailored for those with the blood disease, including a “duck ID,” and intravenous clip.

“This soft and cuddly companion is designed to reinforce important ways to stay well with sickle cell by associating them with fun and play,” a My Special Aflac Duck webpage states. “The duck also offers methods to help children cope in difficult moments, whether it’s during a pain crisis or in times of unease before, during or after a hospital visit.”