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Computers Expand the World of Ill Children : Internet: Hospitals hook up video conferencing to allow their young patients to talk to one another, play games and keep spirits up.


BOSTON — Ten-year-old Jahshun Watson has leukemia, so he knows all about tests. But recently he has been taking part in one test where he does the poking and prodding.

Shunnie, as he's known to his friends, is an early explorer on a computer network that allows him to play games and share his thoughts, if not his fears, with other hospitalized kids who are going through similar ordeals.

By tapping on the arrow keys, he can navigate one of the network's three-dimensional play areas.

"My favorite is Sky World, because you're able to fly," he said last month at Children's Hospital of Boston.

Doctors know Starbright World is fun: They hope it's more.

"We want to see whether it is simply a very enjoyable game for kids or whether it has therapeutic value beyond that," said Dr. Charles Berde, director of the hospital's pain-treatment services.

He hopes someday to add Starbright World to his arsenal of ways to ease young patients' pain and isolation without drugs.

The system can also bring together children on different coasts or on different floors of the hospital.

Two Children's Hospital patients who had never met each other became fast friends on the network.

They can't visit because cystic fibrosis and cancer patients aren't allowed to have contact.

But they quickly connected, discovering shared passions like BB guns, hunting, dirt bikes and hockey.

"They started with nonthreatening stuff like hockey, then got into, 'What's it like to have a central line?' and, 'What's it like for you to wait for a lung transplant?' " said Eileen Hughes-Keddy, a child-life specialist at Children's.

The fledgling system, a brainchild of Steven Spielberg's Starbright Foundation, now links Children's with hospitals in New York, Pittsburgh and Palo Alto, Calif.

Hospitals in Dallas, Washington and Los Angeles are next.

Shunnie, who is from Southampton, Bermuda, was diagnosed with leukemia on Sept. 17.

The next day, he was in Boston for treatment, accompanied by his parents and two younger brothers.

In a 10th-floor activity room especially wired for the computer, Shunnie takes time to demonstrate another play area, Brightstar World, before radiation treatment. He is game but tired after a bad reaction to a spinal tap.

"There's so much pain, you need someone who can identify. We, as parents, don't know what the pain means," said Shunnie's mother, Dawnette.

One of the network's features, the video-conferencing technology, allows the children to speak with each other directly, just as Spielberg had once envisioned.

"There's definitely potential," said Hughes-Keddy. "It's just a matter of figuring out which way to go with it."

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