Jacob Kerlin has missed more than six weeks of school but he hasn't missed much, thanks to technology that has kept him connected to his classroom.
In February, Jacob received a kidney transplant at Medical College of Georgia Children's Medical Center after months of dialysis treatments.
Using MCG's Via TV - television-based video conferencing - the Augusta Preparatory Day School fourth-grader has remained linked to his classroom.
"What I like about it the most is I'm seeing what's going on in the classroom," Jacob said on a recent Wednesday. "Before, I would have my lessons but I would always wonder what they were doing. It helps me not get so far behind that I can't catch up."
Anthony Schaffer, Augusta Prep's technology coordinator, worked with MCG to connect the equipment that would bring Jacob's classes to him. Working with a phone-line connection, cameras and microphones, Jacob can be seen by his classmates on a 15-inch television. A small camera mounted on top of the TV allows Jacob to see the classroom.
The teacher talks to him through a portable telephone with a headset. If any of his classmates want to talk to him or are giving an oral report, they put the headset on so Jacob can hear them. Jacob also has a headset so his classmates can hear him, too.
"Jacob can raise his hand and be called on in class, so that keeps him going," said his mother, Shawn Kerlin. "It's also important that the kids can see that he's OK. He's not looking any different or acting any different."
Pam Lee, a school services coordinator at the children's hospital, said Via TV is often used with cancer patients because of their ongoing treatment and need for isolation, but this is the first time it has been used with a dialysis patient.
"They are having three to four hours of dialysis per day, usually during the school day, prime time for their studies. The need is great," Ms. Lee said.
Using video conferencing for education started three years ago when Dr. Warren Karp, who was then the coordinator for the department of pediatric telemedicine and distance learning activities, brought the technology to the attention of Tracy Kormylo, who also is a school services coordinator at the children's hospital.
"It has been a blessing for us in many ways," Mrs. Kerlin said. "It keeps us on task with the daily work, and he gets to participate in the lectures. Plus, it keeps him in the school mode, keeps the structure of school going."
Jacob, who has a blockage in his urethra, has had health problems since before he was born - he lost one kidney at 20 weeks' gestation. His health problems became worse about three years ago, Mrs. Kerlin said.
"About a year ago, (we) knew we were heading toward transplant," his mother said.
In November, he began dialysis, and on Feb. 21 he had a kidney transplant. Jacob has been out of school for more than six weeks, and before that he was missing three half-days a week while undergoing dialysis.
Such absences normally would prevent a pupil from advancing. But Jacob has stayed on track and is expected to make it through the fourth grade. Jacob has been going to Augusta Prep since kindergarten, so staying with his classmates is important to him.
"Video conferencing has really been a saving grace for us," Mrs. Kerlin said. "It's kept everything going. It's an important part of his life. Sometimes he thinks, `I wonder if they forgot about me.' This way they don't."
But as many good things as there are about video conferencing, his teachers and his friends agree that seeing a picture of him is no substitute for the real thing.
"It's not the same," said Brad Davis, one of Jacob's classmates and friends. "It's not like talking to him when he's here. I go over to his house occasionally, but I can't go in to see him because he can't play with people 12 and under until he gets better. I miss him."
Cindy Walker, his language arts and social studies teacher, said learning to use the new technology has been challenging.
"You have to be conscious, to make sure he gets the information and understands it," she said.
He can't see the white board where lessons are written, so the teacher has to make sure he receives that information. And any exchange between pupils has to be interpreted by the teacher, because he can't clearly hear what they are saying.
"It's been an interesting experience," Ms. Walker said. "The other kids like to have the connection with him; they get very excited when he's calling in. I think it's important for him to keep that connection with the other students, but more important for him than for them."
His teachers credit his mother for keeping him on task. The hard part, they say, is if he needs individual instruction.
"I miss that personal contact with him," said Melanie Moore, his science and math teacher. "It's hard to tell if he's getting something or not. It's exciting for me and the kids that he is still a part of our class. But it's not the same."
Reach Melissa Hall at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 113.