Hospital Healing Gardens

Sheltering Arms Hospital labyrinth and park. Richmond, Virginia. Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2014

Our hospitals are bustling, intimidating, drama-filled, miraculous, expensive, technology-driven, antiseptic, and confusing places. Anything that can make them more ‘grounded’ and healing should be a welcome thing.

The first photo here is of the walking meditation outdoor labyrinth and wheelchair accessible park/paracourse that was associated with the (now closed) Sheltering Arms Hospital in Richmond, Virginia. This is where I would go for stress-reduction and perspective-seeking when I worked as a rehab nurse at the hospital (1980s), and then much later when my father was in home hospice nearby.

Paul Farmer, physician, anthropologist, global health activist, and founder of the Harvard-based Partners in Health, says that he has two main markers of quality of health care in a hospital that he visits anywhere in the world. His are not the usual quality of health care indicators those of us who work in health care and health services research think of. For hospitals, these include such things as: 1) timely and effective health care for conditions such as heart attack, 2) lower complications (and deaths) from surgeries, 3) lower hospital-acquired infections, and 4) patient report of good communication with doctors and nurses (see the very useful and consumer-friendly online tool based on national Medicare data, Hospital Compare). No, for Dr. Paul Farmer a hospital’s restrooms and gardens are what reveal its overall quality of care.

The fascinating topic of restrooms I will leave for another time, but hospital gardens are something I want to focus on here.

Modern hospitals trace their roots to the cloistered buildings of religious monastic orders that took in those too poor or disabled to be taken care of in their own homes by family members. These early hospitals were often built around a courtyard with a medicinal/herb garden, fruit trees, and a kitchen garden.

Garden of the Hospital in Arles 1, by Vincent Van Gogh. Public Domain license Wikimedia Commons.

The hospital healing garden shown here was an inner courtyard garden of the psychiatric hospital in southern France where Vincent Van Gogh was a patient. The view is from his hospital room. He also painted his famous series of blue irises from the hospital’s gardens. In letters he wrote to his family, he relayed how these gardens were an important part of his tenuous hold on mental and physical health.

Florence Nightingale knew the importance of nature in hospital reform and redesign. She emphasized the role of fresh air, sunlight, flowers, and of patients being able to see out of the window instead of looking at a wall. “She wrote, ‘I shall never forget the rapture of fever patients over a bunch of bright-coloured flowers’ she noted, adding ‘people say the effect is only on the mind. It is no such thing. The effect is on the body too'”(quote from the Wellcome Trust blog post ‘Why every hospital should have a garden,‘ 11-8-13). I wonder what Nightingale would say about our ‘modern’ hospitals banning the delivery of fresh flowers or plants to patients for fear of allergies or mold or whatever it is they fear.

Yesterday I went in search of the healing garden at the University of Washington Medical Center (UWMC) where I work (and where I have been a patient–for a bit more on that see my Medical Maze photo description in Pulse: Voices From the Heart of Medicine 1-23-15 ). I remembered it as an almost shockingly calming and contemplative space near the coffee shop adjacent to the main surgery wing. The UWMC healing garden was a rooftop garden designed by local UW landscape architect Daniel Winterbottom who specializes in healing/restorative gardens. I sought the healing garden in vain, as it was torn down several years ago to make room for yet another wing to this already massive hospital and medical center (at over 6 million square feet of mostly concrete, the UWMC/Health Sciences complex is the world’s largest single university building). The very helpful UWMC information desk staff directed me to this spot (see photo below) as the ‘backup’ healing garden. It appears to be a series of mud puddles with a no smoking sign and smokers happily puffing away. Clearly, there’s much work to be done.

UWMC mud puddle ‘healing garden.’ Photo credit: Josephine Ensign/2015


The Therapeutic Landscape Network has a searchable index ‘Gardens in Healthcare and Related Facilities.’

An excellent (and expensive! see if your local library has/can get a copy) book on the topic is Therapeutic Landscapes: An Evidence-based Approach to Designing Healing Gardens and Restorative Outdoor Spaces, by Clare Cooper Marcus and Naomi Sachs (Wiley: 2013). It includes an extensive collection of case studies of different types of healing and therapeutic gardens associated with hospitals, rehabilitative facilities, nursing homes, and hospices.

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