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October 01, 2013

Hospital Prescribes Healing Dose of Nature

by Faiza Elmasry

A growing number of U.S. hospitals and clinics are adding a dose of Mother Nature to their medical kits by planting gardens for their patients and visitors. 

Johns Hopkins Hospital’s healing gardens are designed to look like little oases, but they are more than just part of a pretty landscape.

Yoyo Caudill, 7, and his mother, Anna, are frequent visitors to the Baltimore hospital.

“We’re here on this visit because he was able to have a colostomy reversal," Anna Caudill said. "He's had a colostomy since he was maybe 5 days old.”

When Yoyo is allowed to walk around, he heads to the hospital’s Little Prince Garden, an outdoor space inspired by a classic children’s book. It's a space where he can climb on fiberglass asteroids, make plastic birds ‘fly’ across a futuristic overhanging sculpture and enjoy the plants picked specifically for kids, like sunflowers, shooting stars and roses.

“It’s a very good neutral zone in a hospital," his mother said."I think mentally it helps, [and] emotionally, give children a place of respite.”

That’s important, said Patrice Brylske, director of Hopkins’ Children Center, because being in the hospital is stressful for young patients.

“There is never an easy time for a child to experience hospitalization," she said. "They have a lot of fears when they come to the hospital."

Healthcare organizations and hospitals look for a way to minimize those fears.

"That’s what a healing garden represents," said Brylske. "[It's] a way for the children to be in the breeze, to touch the grass and see birds and butterflies and watch the change of seasons as it takes place.”

The Little Prince Garden is one of three healing gardens at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The spaces are open to young and adult patients, their family members and hospital staff. Hopkins official Sally MacConnell said they have become an important part of therapy.

“You don’t come to the hospital because you want to," MacConnell said. "You come to the hospital because you have to, but at the same time the healing of our patients has a lot to do with their emotional status. So the garden is really a dimension that we could provide that isn’t usually found in hospitals that could say something to every visitor; 'We have our garden because we really care about you.'”

Johns Hopkins Hospital’s gardens were all designed by Susan Weiler.

The healing gardens are a relatively recent phenomenon for hospitals and care facilities, but the idea of healing gardens is ancient. 

"You have to look at the Babylonians, 6,000 years BC, they’d already been doing hanging gardens, then the Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean wealth of gardens throughout different cultures of the Christian and Islamic cultures where gardens took on deeper meanings," said Susan Weiler, who designed the gardens at Hopkins. "But I think currently, the Italians still have a very strong garden ethic. Germans have a tremendous garden ethic. I think every garden has an aspect of healing.”

In addition to plants chosen to appeal to the senses of sight, hearing and smell, there are water features like fountains and pools. Even the placement of the garden itself has a therapeutic purpose.

“There has to be enough sun," Weiler said. "There has to be enough shade. There has to be accessibility. For every level, from the trees all the way to the ground covers, everything has a color and texture. There has to be a balance of it. You can’t have all reds and oranges. You need to have some of them. Blues and whites tend to calm people and violets, so there is an aspect of that relationship with the color.”

There’s a reason Weiler incorporated a variety of surfaces into the garden such as concrete, cobblestones and granite.

“I think when people see durable materials, it makes them feel calmer too," she said. "That stability makes people feel I’m going to be here tomorrow and the next year and the next year.”

The pleasant view comforts patients, even from inside the hospital.

“The building is 12 stories high that surrounds the gardens," MacConnell said. "So you could be walking into a hallway that overlooks the garden and just start to look at it and perhaps that would make you feel a little better, a little calmer.”

That’s the healing power of Mother Nature.