Students get an up-close look at a light-pulsing, germ-killing robot

The only robot in the Verdugo region that zaps away unwanted bacteria and viruses from hospital rooms arrived at USC-Verdugo Hills Hospital two weeks ago.

The Xenex robot emits a pulsating, bright white UV-C light — which is a short, wavelength, ultraviolet light that can save lives.

Once surfaces are exposed to the robot's rays, harmful bacteria and viruses die, greatly reducing the odds patients will be infected with hospital-acquired infections, including those caused by superbugs such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, known as MRSA.

On Monday, USC-Verdugo Hills Hospital employees joined Xenex employees at Fremont Elementary School, where they showcased the $100,000 machine in teacher Mallory Kane's sixth-grade classroom, the same place where Keith Hobbs, chief executive of Verdugo Hills Hospital, was a sixth-grader in 1979.

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"There's no other place that I would rather be than to come back to my alma mater and share this R2D2, bug-zapping machine with you guys," Hobbs said.

The Xenex robot pulses UV-C light 67 times per second, and hospital staff take precautions when they operate it because the light can harm their eyes.

"This is not any light bulb in your house," said Mary Virgallito, director of patient safety for the hospital. "It's actually filled with a gas called xenon."

Virgallito said hospital employees manually clean rooms before they activate Xenex. It takes the robot about 15 minutes to clean a patient's room, and 20 minutes to disinfect an operating room.

Hobbs said mothers ask if they can borrow the robot to disinfect their own homes, and Kane suggested it would be helpful in the classroom. Over the past several weeks, many of her students missed school because they were sick.

Jeff Mamalakis, business development manager for Xenex, volunteered to disinfect Kane's room when school let out.

The space would be left with a scent as if lightning had just struck, Virgallito said.

The impromptu high-tech, germ-cleansing session was a dream come true for Kane.

"In sixth grade, [the curriculum] moves so quickly that even missing one day puts kids so far behind," Kane said. "Having our classroom disinfected every day would be a dream come true. My kids would be here, everyone would be happy, no one would have to miss school."

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Kelly Corrigan, kelly.corrigan@latimes.com

Twitter: @kellymcorrigan

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