Robot at Tygerberg Hospital connecting COVID-19 patients with their families

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Stellenbosch University has roped in a cyber friend to assist doctors, nurses, and the families of those in Tygerberg Hospital fighting COVID-19. The “friend” is a robot that connects patients with their loved ones during an often traumatic period of being in the hospital.

Named “Quintin”, the computer tablet on wheels, has aided in the recovery of patients. Quintin is a Double Robotics robot that is equipped to do video and voice calls. It brings families together when they need it most.

Operated via a cell phone app, the robot can move unaided. Sometimes, Quintin spends hours with patients, connecting them to their families –  enabling both sides to see each other. While human interaction can never be replaced, Quintin is a  solution to an often heartbreaking problem. With no visitation during a hospital stay due to COVID-19, patients may experience immense trauma as a result.

Tygerberg Hospital is a public health facility that also serves as a training hospital for Stellenbosch University.

“Family members’ role in the care and recovery of patients is crucial, yet often overlooked.  The zero visitation policy as a result of COVID doesn’t allow for in-person contact and this is an uncertain and traumatic context. Patients and their families need autonomy.  They need support and contact. Family contact increases feel-good hormones and reduces stress hormones.  Doctor Kerry Louw, a psychiatrist involved in the project observed patients’ vital signs improved after virtual contact.  We see people smile again amid the anxiety.  Families are able to include their loved ones, talk about day to day things, they pray together, have spiritual meetings, sing for them,” says Psychologist at Stellenbosch University, Maryke Hewett.

Quintin is also sometimes used to enable families to say their last goodbyes. For the Simayile family, that day came on 3 September when Vuyelwa was told her husband, Nceba, had very little time left.

COVID-19 was overpowering the husband and father’s body. Quintin was brought to Nceba’s bedside in ICU.

At home Vuyelwa watched in dreadful agony, saying goodbye.

“He could only tell me that he loves me and I’m grateful that I could see him at that time and he was incubated and the doctors said at that time that he is in his last moments. We were able to spend time with him with Quintin the whole night.  The church members were here to pray for him while they saw him on Quintin.”

Miraculously, Nceba survived after 46 days in the hospital, with the help of doctors, nurses, the love of his family, prayers, and Quintin.  Nceba is recuperating at home.

“When people say they love you, you expect that love to be expressed through action and then Quintin cleared that gap because you could see the person you are talking to and to see life. It brings joy and you get to hear the voices that you’ve missed and can attach it to the face. To me it was magic even though I wanted to hold my wife and my kids but at least for me to be able to see them, it worked on my stress levels. It gave me hope that one day I would be able to see them.”

Nceba Simayile warns that everyone should take COVID-19 seriously. He says many people act as if it doesn’t exist and are careless. Remembering the pain, worry, and trauma his family went through, he is pleading that people will do what is needed to stop the spread of this deadly virus.