Robot connects Louisiana girl with rare illness to classroom

January 16, 2016
John Quinn

An unusual student lights up and rolls out of the corner of Erica Bossier’s first grade class at South Larose Elementary School at the start of the day.

It’s a white, 3-foot tall robot with a small screen for its head and a polka-dotted, pink bow on top. On the screen is Marcella Pierce, also wearing a pink bow.

The 6-year-old can’t go to school because of a rare neurological disease. Through the robot, nicknamed Mar-2 by the class, she’s able to attend school.

It’s only by extraordinary circumstances that she’s even in class.

Heading into kindergarten at Cut Off Elementary in 2014, where her mother Amy was a teacher, Marcella was a normal 5-year-old girl.

The seventh of 10 children, and the oldest daughter, Marcella took after her brothers, who are ages 18, 13, 12, 11, 10, 8, 5 and 3. She also has a 2-year-old sister. A bit of tomboy, Marcella also likes to dance and play with dolls.

“She’s turning into one of the girls,” mom said. “She has a very bubbly personality. She’s always been very happy.”

But in September, Marcella began to complain that her neck hurt. Then she started vomiting and had a fever. Her symptoms have worsened ever since.

She was diagnosed with Acute Flaccid Myelitis, a rare virus similar to polio and West Nile Virus that affects the nerve cells in the spine. Doctors are still unsure of the cause.

Since August 2014, there have 120 cases diagnosed in 34 states of children under the age of 7 who developed a sudden onset of weakness in one or both arms or legs and MRI scans show inflammation of nerve cells in the spinal cord, according to the Center for Disease Control. Only two children have fully recovered. About 80 have shown some improvement.

Marcella, who only has complete control of her right arm and some control of her head, fits into the small improvement category, Amy said.

Marcela’s movement of her legs and left arm, her voice and her ability to get rid of mucus were just a few of the abilities the virus has cost her. She has a tube around her neck and needs a ventilator at night.

“She was a healthy 5-year old before she became ill,” Amy said. “It’s been very difficult.”

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