Stories of Hope
Healing Gardens Nurture the Spirit While Patients Get Treatment
Article date: July 24, 2002
Nature heals the heart and soul, and those are things the doctors can't help. That's what the garden is all about — healing the parts of yourself that the doctors can't.
Cancer Survivor Transforms Hospitals With Nature And Whimsy
In the US, some medical centers are creating healing environments that will nurture the spirit while treating the body. The desire is to change the cold, impersonal atmosphere that often pervades hospitals and cancer centers.
More than fresh paint, some centers are being built from the ground up with innovative architecture. Others are landscaping new spaces. Volunteer and staff committees are working with designers to develop dreams into realities.
Vision Transforms Spaces
One such visionary artist is a cancer survivor. Topher Delaney, a San Francisco landscape architect, designs spiritual sanctuaries for civic, business, and private spaces. After her breast cancer treatment experience, she took her artistry, passion, and sense of civic commitment on a mission to transform hospitals with healing gardens.
Delaney's mother had had breast cancer with many recurrences. So in 1989, when Delaney was diagnosed with breast cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes, she had a mastectomy (breast removal). Delaney had chemotherapy for six months, and as a result, at 39 years of age, went into menopause and lost her sense of smell. While she was in the hospital setting for treatment, she loathed the "grim" surroundings.
"I had my pact with God," said Delaney; 'Oh, God, if I get through this, then I'll do healing gardens. You keep me alive, I'll keep doing gardens.'" She wanted to give others the kind of retreat she wished she'd had during treatment.
As of today, her work has brought healing gardens to five hospitals; three in California, one in Texas, and one in New York.
Her first was built for the Marin Cancer Institute in 1993 in Greenbrae, Calif. The garden was built as an integral part of the cancer institute. It was funded through donations raised by a committee of patients and their families who wanted a healing environment.
Open to the sky, the garden is located in an 800-square-foot atrium in the center of the radiation oncology therapy department, next to the patient waiting area. The glass wall from floor to ceiling is critical to the success of the garden. Patients in the waiting room face the garden. The door is left open so the patients can hear the fountain, smell the plants, or walk into the garden if they wish. Windows surround the garden on all four sides.
Delaney chose plants that are the source of the drugs used in the treatment for various kinds of cancer. A brochure teaches patients about the healing plants.
"No one really expected how positive an effect the garden would have on our patients and the staff," said Francine Halberg, MD, a radiation oncologist. "It offers a visual solace, a connection to nature, and a sense of peace. The spirit of the garden is growth and renewal, where one can feel connected instead of isolated.
"It's so important to do whatever you can to put patients at ease. Patients thank us all the time for providing a healing environment," said Halberg.
Heals With Joy
Healing gardens can be whimsical and playful. Delaney's Leichtag Family Healing Garden at the Children's Hospital and Health Center in San Diego is alive with color and the miracle of laughter.
It's an invitation to explore. The garden is entered through the towering legs of the 20-foot-tall by 40-foot-long, steel-frame dinosaur named "Sam." Purple trumpet vines climb up his legs as his head bends down to peer into the surgery recovery area on the second floor. When it gets dark, small white lights glow on "Sam," making him a huge comforting night-light.
"Sam" is named for Sam Burt. Now nine years old, Sam is home after 27 surgeries and a long struggle with the complications of a genetic disorder.
His mother, Deborah, was one of the volunteers on the healing environment committee, which included parents and staff. She connected with Lee and Toni Leichtag, who donated $250,000 for the garden.
Built in 1997, they tore down a parking lot and put up a paradise.
Delaney changed their concept of a healing garden. "Topher brought to us an energy like I have never seen," said Deborah. "She made our passion hers and brought to us a new vision. It went from a bench-in-a-rose-garden concept to what it is today."
Beyond the "Samosaurus" beckons a seven-foot-tall, blue-tiled seahorse fountain. As a colorful windmill turns, a swirl of birds fly. Starfish benches seat a family of five. Nearby, giant umbrellas shade colorful six-foot benches that can be wheeled to privacy or to join others. Children with IVs curl up in their parents' laps on these benches.
A colbalt-blue stucco wall has embedded disks of glass that shine as jeweled zodiac constellations. They remind viewers that each child is a star in the universe, a part of a whole. The shadow wall has shapes of animals cut out of colorful metal panels. As the sun moves across the sky, animal shadows lengthen. A burnt-orange wall has 350 animal tiles placed child height. The walls allow niches of privacy. Children put hand-prints of dirt on the walls, leaving a part of themselves behind.
Flowers attract butterflies and hummingbirds. Geraniums give the scent of lemon, mint, and chocolate. Parents scent their children's rooms with lavender from the garden. Healing plants are labeled. A Tree of Life celebrates the lives of children who pass on, as families and staff gather to honor them.
The hospital encourages families to visit. The garden becomes an outlet for siblings, a retreat for weary parents, and a playground where patients can be children.
"Nature heals the heart and soul, and those are things the doctors can't help," said Deborah. "That's what this garden is all about — healing the parts of yourself that the doctors can't.
"The garden really gives hope because people see flowers bloom and others enjoying life," she said. "It's a garden full of change and metaphor."
The garden aids treatment, said Jayne Hamlet, a hematology oncology nurse and case manager in the cancer care center. "Anything we can use in the garden to tell stories, to stimulate their imagination, to distract them, helps to relax them and alleviate their pain without medication," said Hamlet.
"The book, The Giving Tree was required reading in nursing school," she said. "Basically it's about a tree that gives as it grows. Our garden does the same thing — gives back, to the children, their families, and the medical staff."
Delaney is the Giving Tree. "I'm living a happy ending,” said Delaney. “I always live with this edge. I'm just passing through, like a tree passes through. I give shade, I support others," she said.
"I come from a culture of tithing, of giving back, of affecting change. It's not an option," said Delaney. "I want to do gardens that help others to do gardens. It's not just about me, but about others seeing the opportunity for themselves to do this."