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Hospital gardens bloom with a healing power for the spirit as well as the body

Gardens have become a growing part of medical facility landscaping, offering patients and families a quiet place for physical and spiritual healing. The University of Kansas Cancer Center’s Richard and Annette Bloch Cancer Care Pavilion in Westwood features a Garden of Infinite Possibilities, with cheer radiating from this statue called “Joyful."
Gardens have become a growing part of medical facility landscaping, offering patients and families a quiet place for physical and spiritual healing. The University of Kansas Cancer Center’s Richard and Annette Bloch Cancer Care Pavilion in Westwood features a Garden of Infinite Possibilities, with cheer radiating from this statue called “Joyful." deulitt@kcstar.com

Maybe it’s the fresh air, or perhaps the sound of birds singing. Somehow, being in nature — or even just looking out the window at the great outdoors — has a restorative effect.

That may be the reason gardens have been popping up on hospital grounds, medical buildings and hospice facilities all over Kansas City and the rest of the country. Nature heals.

Testimony from former patients and caregivers seems to bear this out.

Leann Weller, for instance, says a little trail next to Liberty Hospital has been a place of refuge and meditation for her and her husband since their infant daughter died as she was being delivered.

“It’s a beautiful place to have and very healing,” said Weller, who lives in Lee’s Summit. “To me it’s just a very peaceful place to go.”

Gary McDaniels knows the benefits of nature firsthand. McDaniels recently spent six days in at Shawnee Mission Medical Center after doctors found a tumor in his leg. McDaniels, who lives on 36 acres in Linwood, Kan., was not used to being cooped up in a small space. Doctors suggested that getting outside in the hospital garden might help.

“Getting out gets your mind off of it,” McDaniels said. “You’re not in a four-walled room. The outside can give you peace of mind.”

The Weller family and McDaniels are not alone in thinking nature does good for the spirit. In fact, many hospitals and medical facilities have been installing green spaces the past few years because of research that shows even a few minutes viewing a nature scene can reduce a patient’s stress levels and bring about better vital signs.

A groundbreaking 1984 study by environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich found that patients who had window views of nature needed less pain medication and had fewer post-surgery complications than those looking at a brick wall. Evolutionary biologists and others then weighed in with supporting comments.

Ever since, gardens have become a bigger part of medical facility landscaping. It is now the norm to find some type of quiet space on hospital grounds where patients, family and staff can visit for a brief respite.

Kansas City area hospitals have followed suit.

Liberty Hospital’s walking trail is one of the larger and more unusual nature settings. Walkers often start at a semicircular, brick-paved gazebo and walk the length of the hospital grounds, past a butterfly garden memorial for organ donors, wildflowers and a wooden deck with benches.

Weller and her husband, Rodger, enjoy taking their three children to the trail.

“We have walked on the trail many times,” she said. Their older children can run there, but more importantly, “they can be in a place where their sister was without being in a hospital room.”

The one-mile loop abutting a tiny rill and a hayfield is used by former patients and their loved ones as they deal with the stresses of the hospital at 2525 Glenn Hendren Drive. “It’s just removing yourself from the inside of the building with alarms going off and pages overhead,” she said.

The shady walk, dotted with wildflowers, has been a place of refuge and meditation for the Wellers since Kyleigh died three years ago, and they are not alone: The loop is the site of a run/walk and candlelight ceremony in memory of babies who have died in similar circumstances. The event is timed to be close to the Oct. 15 National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Day. The ceremony, which included luminaries last year, is a way for people to deal with the grief of a pregnancy loss, she said.

The Wellers set up Kyleigh’s Gift to raise money to give everyone having a baby at the hospital a “sleep sack” wearable swaddling blanket.

The hospital trail got its start around 1996, when the hospital foundation was looking for ideas to help the facility. Bill Elder, head groundskeeper, suggested the trail.

“If I say so myself, it’s one of the most beautiful walking trails,” he said.

And it’s been well-used by patients, their families, hospital staff and even those who live in the surrounding neighborhood, Elder said. People use it to decompress, he said.

It’s also a place for survivors. People like to revisit the trees they donated in memory of loved ones, said Mark Bertrand, executive director of the Liberty Hospital Foundation. And it provides a place to socialize and share with others.

At one of the larger memorials, just off the main path, the sidewalk forms the number 4, in honor of Barrett Wepler, a Liberty High School basketball player who died on the court in 2006.

McDaniels says the healing power of nature — “getting the fresh air” — will help him continue on his journey at the Shawnee Mission hospital at 9100 W. 74th St. in Merriam. Although he had initial surgery to support his bone, he will still need to go through radiation and chemotherapy.

“My feeling is being stuck in the room the whole time kind of brings you down a little,” he says.

During his stay, his wheelchair could make it out into the little garden just outside the cafeteria as his leg was healing from a pin the doctors had set in it.

The garden, with its shaded walks and flowers, was a pleasant place he and his wife could sit.

“It was a nice day. We could sit there and discuss the situation I was in.”

The Shawnee Mission hospital is so committed to the healing effects of gardens that it has two. Shawnee Mission’s first garden, the Meditation Garden outside the cafeteria, is 20 years old. In 2009, the facility added a Chapel Garden in a courtyard surrounded by the tall, newer building of the campus and adjacent to the chapel.

Patients and staff can look down on that garden from six stories of the buildings, said Louis Gehring, senior executive director of the Foundation for Shawnee Mission Medical Center.

It’s important for health-care givers to remember that healing isn’t just about drugs and technical machinery, he said.

“Our mission is to support the needs of the person. You’re not just a body in a fix-it shop. We want to address the needs of people, body, mind and spirit.”

The Meditation Garden also provides a view from cafeteria windows. A few steps away, visitors can walk along a mostly shady brick path through the ornamental grass, begonias and holly bushes and perhaps read a few verses on flagstones or note the names on dedicated bricks. At one end is a secluded area with tables and chairs.

The Chapel Garden is sunnier, with one side a grassy area and the other filled with benches, shrubs and small trees. People going from one building to the next can get a few minutes of nature on their way.

Both areas are beneficial not only to the patients and their families but also to hospital staff, Gehring said. “It gives you a glimpse of peace and tranquility no matter how busy you are on your day.”

Even a window view can give patients a brighter outlook, said Mark Stoddard, administrative director for Shawnee Mission’s Spiritual Wellness department. But getting outside is good, too.

“Taking somebody outside to experience nature when they are cooped up in a room full of medical equipment, alarms and beeps — it’s transformative,” he said.

Like the path around the hospital in Liberty, a new garden to be built at St. Luke’s East Hospital near Interstate 470 and Douglas Street in Lee’s Summit will help those coping with the loss of a baby at or before delivery.

Gloria Solis, chief of nursing, said there have been numerous requests from families for some way to commemorate their loss. Often, she said, there isn’t a gravestone or location for these families to visit.

“To us, the main purpose is to offer a place that lets families know their baby and grief is not forgotten,” Solis said. “It’s a special place, a quiet place for them to reflect. We are hoping this place helps parents grieve appropriately, and that people realize, yes, that was a significant event.”

At the University of Kansas Cancer Center’s Richard and Annette Bloch Cancer Care Pavilion at 2330 Shawnee Mission Parkway, patients and staff can stroll through a spacious grass- and tree-filled garden when they have a break during cancer treatments. The Westwood garden’s name — Garden of Infinite Possibilities — says it all, says Barbara Unell, who advocated for the garden and is one of the founding donors.

Unell got the idea for the garden during the building’s conversion from former telecom office space to cancer treatment center in Westwood. She said the weedy expanse would be a great place for a healing garden because of its visibility from an adjacent glassed-in walkway.

Unell was inspired by a garden she’d seen at the Duke Cancer Center in North Carolina, she said. The Bloch Pavilion garden, opened in 2007, is a large space that is protected from the concrete and noise of the street by landscaping. “You feel like you might be in a park.”

The outdoors and nature has always been an important part of life for Unell, herself a cancer survivor. Although she doesn’t garden herself, Unell said she considers walking in nature an important part of the healing process, when patients want the feeling of rejoining normal activities.

The reflective, meditative aspect of being in nature is soothing, she said, “but also there’s a sense of community and gathering that can happen in a space like this.”

The benefits of nature in medical care extend further than curing the patient. Integration with the outdoors is also used in hospice care.

KC Hospice House in southern Kansas City, for instance, was designed with nature in mind. Every room has large windows that actually open for the fresh air — a rarity in medical facilities, said Elaine McIntosh, president and CEO. The rooms are also designed so that wheelchairs and even patient beds can enter a central courtyard.

The hospice house has an advantage in its nearness to the natural world, she said. It is located on 12 acres next to a green belt where deer, fox and other wildlife roam.

A lot of thinking went into how the area was landscaped, McIntosh said. Plantings are mostly low-maintenance of various textures and colors that attract birds and butterflies. And the grass of choice was buffalo grass, a type that requires very little mowing. Caregivers wanted to keep the landscape pretty, not noisy, she said.

The Hospice House opened in 2006, but the studies on the healing effects of nature weren’t the reason for the emphasis on nature. McIntosh said that nature is simply a part of the facility’s holistic approach to care.

“Nature is a source of solace for everyone, regardless of what their belief systems are,” she said. “Our hope is that as soon as someone steps into the building they receive a message of peace and safety.”

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