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Though fighting cancer, Blue Valley High teen wanted to be in school. A robot helped

Ari Burris with the robot that helped her keep up with her classes while undergoing chemotherapy.
Ari Burris with the robot that helped her keep up with her classes while undergoing chemotherapy. Courtesy photo

Last semester, Ari Burriss just wanted to be at school, working through her sophomore year at Blue Valley High School like she normally would. When chemotherapy left her too immunosuppressed to go in person, she found a way around it — by sending a robot in her place.

Nicknamed the Aribot by her dad, Brian Burriss, the robot isn’t the sci-fi artificial intelligence you might be imagining. It’s more of a tall tablet on wheels that allows someone to navigate a physical space while in another location.

Cameras and speakers allowed Ari, now 16, to view her classrooms and participate in her four honors and advanced placement classes from anywhere. Sometimes she’d be sitting with her laptop at home, but other times she attended class while getting treatments at the hospital.

“I saw a bunch of people I don’t really talk with making faces at it, because I don’t think they realized that I’m watching them,” Ari said. “It was kind of funny, because everyone’s going to look at a robot rolling in your school. Then after a while, everyone was like, ‘Oh, Ari’s here.’”

Ari’s illness started very suddenly last July, when the family was on vacation in Colorado. Ari was in so much pain that she couldn’t move, and her parents took her to the hospital there. She had surgery to remove a tumor, then waited a few weeks for the analysis.

The family had been thinking it was benign, but when the results came back, it was a rare stage 3c juvenile granulosa cell tumor. Follow-up surgery revealed 29 additional tumors and the need for immediate, aggressive treatment.

“Normally she’d have six to eight weeks to heal, but they really couldn’t allow her that kind of time to heal, because she had to start chemo as soon as she could,” Brian Burriss said.

He gave her the option of dropping out for the semester, like most kids do when faced with this kind of treatment plan. Ari didn’t even want to consider that.

“I went to school for a day, then I had surgery. I had to recover, then as soon as I could, start doing stuff. I got caught up a little bit, and then chemo, and then tried to catch up, then chemo. It was like this back and forth battle to stay with my class,” she said.

Initially, she wanted to keep up with six classes from home, but her parents convinced to scale back to four.

Her dad, who loves checking out new technology and gadgets, got the idea for the robot from attending the Consumer Electronics Show. He contacted Suitable Technologies and told them of Ari’s situation.

He was able to arrange for Ari to use a Beam telepresence robot that she could steer with her computer via WiFi.

“I thought it was a great display of dedication to her education to make sure she was as present as possible without physically being here,” said Manal Wiedel, Ari’s chemistry teacher. “…The challenges are in the group work… making sure she could be physically present for a lab even though she couldn’t be hands-on.”

Ari’s twin sister, Belle, was in charge of getting the robot from school administrators each morning and leading it through physical obstacles, like doors, to Ari’s first class. Other friends stepped in the help escort the robot sometimes, too.

It wasn’t easy, even with the technological help. Ari often felt very ill from the chemotherapy, but because it was so important to her, she kept on top of her schoolwork.

“My doctors would come into my (chemotherapy) room and say, ‘You’re doing homework? You’re the only kid I’ve ever seen do homework here,’” Ari said.

Every now and then, Ari was able to go to school for a few days between chemotherapy cycles.

“After the biggest surgery I’d ever done, it was like a week later, and I was like, ‘OK, I can go. Put me in a wheelchair. Just bring me to classes.’ I wanted to be there so bad, even though I was in pain,” Ari said.

After the intense months of treatment, Ari got the all-clear that she was in remission and has been back at school in person this semester. She also personally raised $2,422 as a team captain to support Relay For Life and the American Cancer Society.

“I see things differently than what I did before. … I’ve always liked school, but a lot of kids are like, ‘Snow day, snow day! I don’t want school,’ but I really actually want to go to school,” Ari said. “You don’t realize what you miss when you actually have to miss.”

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