Above and beyond the ‘Call of Duty’

“Quick, help me or I’m going to die!”

Not exactly the words you want to hear shouted from a room in a children’s hospital. But when the cries are punctuated with laughter and buzzing video game sound effects (as they were when I heard them), it’s a surprisingly welcome sound.

The commotion I heard was coming from the room of Alex Cote, a 14-year-old patient who had been at Boston Children’s Hospital since March, recovering from a bone marrow transplant. His recovery care required him to stay fairly isolated, and for weeks after his operation the only people Alex saw were his care team and immediate family.

It’s a solid support system, but after months in the hospital Alex was really missing his friends.

“There wasn’t a lot he could do while recovering, so it’s no surprise he was getting so bored,” says Alex’s stepmother, Rachel Cote. “But it got to the point where we worried that all this time in the hospital was making him depressed.”

Alex’s doctors agreed. Dan Kohane, MD, Phd, who managed Alex’s overall care while he was in the Intensive Care Unit, noticed his patient’s morale was dropping as the weeks dragged on. It’s no secret that Alex loves video games—the walls of his room are plastered with Super Mario, Angry Bird and Call of Duty posters—so Kohane decided to reach out to some of the younger members of his team to see if they could help cheer Alex up.

When not seeing patients Kohane runs the Laboratory for Biomaterials and Drug Delivery, a biomaterials research facility that employs several researchers, many freshly graduated from college, or in graduate or medical school. Given the mass appeal of video games with teenagers and young adults alike, Kohane had a hunch that Alex and a few members of his staff might share some common ground.

“There’s a lot of young people in my lab, and I know some of them play video games,” Kohane says. “I figured if one or two of them could include Alex it would be a pleasant change of pace for him.”

It turns out that Kohane was right, but the response he saw from both his team and his patient was far greater than he expected. Al Kwon, Homer Chiang, Patrick Armstrong and a few others, all researchers in Kohane’s lab, volunteered to visit Alex and engage him in weekly video game sessions. For nearly three months the young men gathered in Alex’s room every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, to play games for hours at a time. Balancing Alex’s complex treatment regimen with the schedules of so many busy researchers wasn’t easy, but many people from Kohane’s lab rearranged personal commitments to make themselves available.

“I was really heartened to see the efforts my group went to in making this happen for Alex,” Kohane says. “It speaks volumes about them personally and their commitment to care.”

Alex and a team from the Laboratory of Biomaterials and Drug Delivery held a celebratory video game marathon in honor of his birthday. (From Left to Right: Julia, Patrick, Jenny, Homer, Cristina, Alina, Tzahi, Al, Alex, Lauren, Rachel, Michelle and Dan Kohane)

But what started out as nice gesture on the part of Kwon and his friends quickly evolved into much more.

“Video gaming is one of the few things a couple of guys in their 20s and 30s can relate to when hanging out with someone Alex’s age, so it seemed like a fun idea at first,” Kwon says. “But over time it’s become much more than that. We’ve built a real friendship with Alex.”

And while Al, Patrick and Homer clearly got a lot out of the sessions, they meant the world to Alex. Once the video game meetings were in full swing, his spirits picked up rapidly.

“It was great to have something to look forward to at the end of the day,” he says. “I may have been in the hospital but at least I could enjoy myself like a normal kid.”

His mother, Lauren, says that feeling of normality played a big part in her son’s recovery. “Gaming with these guys is more fun than shooting zombies with his mom,” she says. “For those blocks of time, he could just be a normal teenager. That resulting feeling contributed significantly to his improved emotional well-being. You simply can’t put a price tag on that, and our whole family is so grateful for this quality-of-life gift from these folks.”

Patrick, Homer and Al employ a little digital therapy

Fortunately, after over seven months at Boston Children’s, Alex was recently discharged. But that doesn’t mean Kwon and company are going to let their gaming skills get rusty. He’s currently in talks with Boston Children’s Child Life Services in hopes of coordinating a hospital-wide program pairing staff gamers with patients.

“As long as these video gaming sessions have a positive impact on people’s care, I know plenty of people who would be more than happy to block out some time in their schedules to play with the kids,” he says. “Video games tend to get a bad rap, but I think this proves that they have some positive aspects as well and I’m glad to keep pushing that message.”