Ashlyn Brysiak begins her morning routine like any 8-year-old. But instead of heading to her classroom at West Creek Hills Elementary, Ashlyn heads to her bedroom.
The Star Wars fan uses an iPad to link to a robot, named A2-B2.
“She just hits her app and it remotes her into school each and every day,” her mother, Angela Brysiak, said.
It all started this past spring, when a minor scooter accident turned into a terrifying discovery.
“We were in the middle of spring soccer and she could barely run up the field,” Angela said. “She was just hobbling and was just cold.”
A pain in Ashlyn’s hip led doctors to diagnose her with leukemia.
“Nobody in their right mind goes, ‘my child’s leg hurts, she’s tired, she’s cold, she’s kind of mopey, she must have leukemia,” father Todd Brysiak said. “You don’t put those pieces together.”
Ashlyn had just finished second grade and spent the summer undergoing intensive chemotherapy.
“It still was horrible,” Angela said. “But it was like, ‘ok, well we’re going to spend the whole summer, the next three months, really battling it to get it to the next stage.”
It became clear that Ashlyn’s weakened immune system would not let her physically attend the third grade. Ashlyn’s parents then began looking for a solution. They floated the idea of the robot to officials in the East Pennsboro Area School District, and those officials made it happen.
“It’s interesting to see how the kids interact with her,” Todd said. “It’s almost as if she’s sitting right next to them. They’ll turn and have a conversation with her and show one another what project they may be working on.
Ashlyn can even participate in discussions, by simply raising her hand.
“Just raise it,” she said with a smile.
This straight-A student has only missed one school day so far this year. She can even attend class from the hospital; even during chemotherapy treatments.
“So many of us when we wake up and have a headache, we don’t want to come to school at all,” said Ashlyn’s teacher, Dawn Kepler. “She would give anything to be with her friends right now doing work.”
In addition to her studies, Ashlyn is also given an opportunity to socialize.
“If I’m rolling down the hallway or something, people will wave,” she said.
In fact, the kids help A2-B2 navigate the hallways. And they have a daily special ritual, to count down the days until Ashlyn is back in her chair. They cut a link off a paper chain and chant, “it’s getting shorter, it’s getting shorter.”
“It’s been really awesome to have her here and it’s been great for the other kids to see her everday,” Kepler said.
“I love school,” Ashlyn said. “I really don’t like missing school.”
“It eases a lot of your concerns when you recognize there’s a whole host of people willing to go above and beyond,” Todd said. “It kind of restores your faith in humanity.”
“It’s just so overwhelming, the amount of love and support we feel” Angela agreed.
The goal is for Ashlyn to get back to school, at least part-time, in January. She has at least two years of treatment left before she can be diagnosed as cancer-free, but so far she has responded well to treatments.