When you’re the first to do something, there is usually no guidebook for how to do it. You make your own way and figure out how to best make it happen. That’s just what Kim Todd did when she started her job six years ago as a child life specialist at the UF Health Proton Therapy Institute. She had training and experience in helping children face difficult medical situations, but because proton therapy facilities were so new, there were no educational materials specifically describing proton therapy treatment, the process or the equipment at the level that a child could understand.
So Todd did what was necessary and created educational materials, including a miniature model of a proton therapy treatment room. Within the first few years of having a child life program that uses medical play, hands-on learning and pre-treatment tours to ease anxiety of the unknown and to teach coping skills, the Institute reduced the number of children between ages five and seven who need daily sedation for treatment by forty percent. But she wanted more.
“I wanted a way for the children to begin learning about the treatment even before they get here,” says Todd. “I thought an app would be a great way to familiarize kids, their families and even their classmates with what to expect.”
Proton therapy is an advanced form of radiation that targets tumors with minimal to no damage to surrounding healthy tissue. Since opening in Jacksonville in 2006, the institute has developed the largest pediatric proton therapy program in the world – treating over 1,300 children who have brain tumors, sarcomas and other types of cancer. Many of the patients come from other states and countries and are here for about two months receiving daily proton therapy.
Todd didn’t have a budget to have an app built from scratch. She was searching for a way to make it happen when she read about a similar project that Flagler College students had done for children with autism.
Todd contacted the school, and Professor Natalie Stephenson agreed to assign the project to her Interactive Design class. Todd met with the students and shared her vision for an interactive storybook featuring a “sidekick” mascot who would show children the way. The app would introduce the children to the sights and sounds of the facility, the people they would meet, and the procedures they would have.
After a tour of the facility and meeting some of the patients they would be designing for, the students got to work on the look and feel of the app, called Proton U. They used the Proton Therapy Institute’s logo as inspiration for the “sidekick,” evolving the orange “dot” in the middle of the logo into a talking proton aptly named Jefferson for the street on which the facility is located. “Those little details are important,” explains Tim Webster, a graphic designer who worked on the character illustrations and who now has a design firm in Savannah, Georgia. “That’s their companion. They turn on Jefferson Street and Jefferson is with them. Those details add up.”
The initial design work began in the fall semester of the 2014-15 schoolyear, but due to the scope of the project, they needed more time: Flagler College added a course in the spring so the students could see it through. “Our professor, Natalie Stephenson, was so great about recognizing what needs we had,” says Leah Frye, a graphic designer who worked on the app and now does design work for Rethreaded and Design Extensions. “She contacted the theatre department for voice acting. The communications department recorded it. We even had translations in Spanish and Norwegian done by students.”