Updated Feb. 20, 12:34 p.m.
University of Florida Health Proton Therapy Institute treated nearly 200 kids with cancer last year. Now doctors there are hoping a new app will help young patients prepare before they arrive for treatment.
The Proton U App was developed by UF Health child life specialist Kim Todd. It’s an interactive storybook that introduces kids to the hospital environment to make treatment less intimidating.
“We’re familiarizing them with the different sights and sound that they’ll see, and really just helping them to have a better outcome and not looking at things as traumatic events,” Todd said.
UF Health worked with Microsoft, UF engineering faculty member Stephen Arce and more than 30 Flagler College students to develop the app, she said.
The app features Jefferson, which looks like an orange with legs. He represents a proton, the main component of proton therapy. Todd said by creating this character pediatric patients from all over the world will see a familiar face when they arrive.
Even though Aaron Eunice started treatment for his brain tumor before the app came out, he said he can see how it would help calm fears for people — like his younger brother — who just had a brain tumor removed. The app has pictures of the facility and the treatment rooms.
“I think they’d feel better because they would know what it looks like, and they know what to expect when they go in there. I didn’t know what it would be like until I walked in there for the first time. … First time I walked in there I thought it was NASA,” Eunice said.
Todd said the Proton U app helps children comprehend the importance of staying still during treatment.
Proton beam therapy is more targeted than traditional radiation treatment. Since proton beam radiation can be more precisely controlled, doctors can prescribe higher doses of radiation directly to the tumor site with less exposure to surrounding healthy tissue. This reduces side effects and lessens the risk of developing complications from treatment later in life.
“The two boys, they have brain tumors. You don’t want to mess with the other parts of their brain because it could affect how they’re developing. Their healthy tissues are still growing, are still developing.”
Todd said it helps cuts down on side effects like recurring cancers and secondary cancers.
She said it also helps cut down on the use of anesthesia, which means no fasting beforehand. The procedure also takes less time, saving about 15-30 minutes, Todd said.
She wants to expand the app’s potential in the future. Right now there are three language options available for captions — English, Spanish and Norwegian — but audio is only available in English.
Last year, about 215 pediatric patients were treated with proton therapy, from Norway to China and Canada. The procedure usually take six to eight weeks to complete. And once completed, Todd said there’s one last task for each child to complete.
“On their very last day, they get to ring the chime,” she said.
Eunice said when he finishes his treatment in a few days, he “going to ring it as loud as he can.”
Intern Serena Summerfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 905.358.6317, or Twitter at @sumserfield.
CORRECTIONS: In this article, Kim Todd’s title was incorrect. She is a child life specialist. Also, UF engineering faculty member Stephen Arce was inadvertently left out of the article. He was a collaborator in the development of the project. The article should have also said proton therapy is more targeted than traditional radiation, and the audio is available only in English while the captions are available in English, Spanish and Norwegian. WJCT regrets the errors.