In gardens, patients find a calm place for healing

Trickling fountains, winding paths offer nature, solace on hospital grounds

Health & Fitness

April 25, 2004|By Erika Hobbs | Erika Hobbs,Special to the Sun

A car accident that crushed Karen Muranaka's spine two years ago and left her a paraplegic threatened to take away one of her favorite pastimes: gardening.

But in Kernan Hospital's rehabilitation garden, she learned how to plant forsythia and hyacinths from her wheelchair. And in the process, she found new hope:

"I look for it harder now -- the birds, colors, greenness of grass every spring," says the 46-year-old Eldersburg resident who visits Kernan every three months for therapy. "That re-growth ... gives my body new strength and renews my inner spirit."

"Healing gardens" such as Kernan's are flourishing at hospitals, hospices and specialty clinics nationwide. Dozens have been built in the Baltimore-Washington area, among them on the grounds of University of Maryland Medical System, Greater Baltimore Medical Center and Franklin Square Hospital.

"We've definitely seen the trend grow over the last 10 years or so," says Catherine Mahan, president of Mahan Rykiel Associates, a Baltimore landscape architecture firm that designed several area healing gardens.

Garden construction, a small part of the $14.9 billion hospitals spent last year on capital projects, are a small investment to make in the industry's intense competition to attract patients, analysts say.

"Marketing is part of it," says Clare Cooper Marcus, professor emeritus at the Departments of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley. "But that's OK if it brings something beneficial to people."

Moods changed

Those benefits go beyond the aesthetic. A growing body of research shows that people feel better when they see gardens, and there are specific biological responses that account for that sense of well-being.

Roger Ulrich, director of the Center for Health Systems and Design at Texas A&M University, is a pioneer in the research on the restorative effects of gardens.

He and Marcus co-authored a 1995 study that documented the stress-relieving benefits of hospital gardens. Nearly all of the patients in the study reported a positive change in mood after they sat in the gardens.

"Healing gardens are not magic" Marcus says. "Multiple senses are engaged, and something about that seems to result in a calming experience so people let anxiety drop away."

These green spaces, often referred to as "healing," "restorative" or "meditation" gardens, typically re-create idyllic back yards or rural landscapes, lush with grass, flowers and trees. Some, such as North Arundel or the Hospice of Baltimore / Gilchrist Center, incorporate water, either with reflective pools or trickling fountains, some stocked with fish.

The gardens can have trees and trellises for shade or winding paths for meandering. Most have benches and private alcoves.

"Sitting there, [patients] remove their thoughts from their selves and instead think about nature," says Lana Dreyfus, a horticulture therapist with the Chesapeake Chapter of the American Horticultural Therapy Association. "That becomes the relief -- they are distracted enough by the garden and the beauty to forget about pain."

At Kernan Hospital in Baltimore, there are also "therapeutic" gardens, where patients can actually garden or continue their rehabilitation -- practice using a new walker, for example.

Thinking of heaven

Many of Maryland's healing gardens -- in hospitals as well as churches and community centers -- have been funded by the TKF Foundation, a private philanthropic group in Annapolis that believes exposure to the outdoors enhances the human condition.

The 19-year-old foundation began focusing solely on sponsoring "sacred outdoor spaces" projects in 1998 and gives several grants of as much as $200,000 each year to create gardens, labyrinths and other outdoor projects, according to executive director Mary F. Wyatt.

The foundation also donates a signature bench made from vintage Eastern Shore oak barrels. Waterproof journals, like the one at the new $17 million Tate Cancer Center at North Arundel Hospital in Glen Burnie, are attached to each bench.

Unsigned entries in the Tate Center journal chronicle the visits of people who have enjoyed the garden. In July, a woman with two young children wrote that she was finding peace after her mastectomy. Another note from a child read: "I hope my grandma is OK. This garden makes me think of heaven."

Planners at North Arundel Hospital wanted to create a space that offered patients and staff a chance to recuperate from illness and stress, says Kathy McCollum, a hospital vice president.

A way to reduce stress

As more hospitals embrace complementary and alternative medicine, healing gardens have become more common.

"We are meant to look like a place to retreat," said Chaplain J. Joseph Hart of the Greater Baltimore Medical Center, whose Towson campus is enclosed by an arbor.

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