Diagnosis: Cancer. That’s just the beginning—then comes the fear of helplessness and dying, the dread of difficult treatments, and the worries about one’s family. Physicians now recognize that patients who draw on their spiritual strength and keep an upbeat attitude recover at a higher rate than patients overwhelmed by anxiety and depression. When cancer patients’ spirits are lifted, their chances of recovery increase.
During her own battle for healing, Nancy Dickerson awaited her treatment in a small, crowded room at the Cancer Treatment Center at St. Vincent Hospital in Santa Fe, New Mexico. From the window, she saw a weedy expanse of gravel and a blank wall. Dickerson thought that a comforting garden outside the window—one that let patients experience the healing power of nature—would nurture the positive attitude essential to defeating cancer.
Today, thanks to the efforts of Dickerson and many others, St. Vincent offers cancer patients and families an ever-changing Healing Garden in place of the weedy gravel. Blooming herbs, perennials, annuals, and trees have replaced the weeds. Gone, too, is the old window, replaced by a glass atrium that bathes the waiting room in sunshine and lets patients enjoy the garden year-round. The blank wall serves as a backdrop for herbs and graceful aspen trees. Near a new, cascading fountain is a colorful mural by noted artist Frederico Vigil entitled “For Everything There Is A Season,” depicting nature’s eternal cycle. Butterflies and dragonflies light the air, birds sing and twitter, and small garden snakes rest in the shade. Sometimes squirrels eat piñon nuts on the sunny fountain.
Creating the Healing Garden posed exceptional challenges. Some hospital staff, even garden lovers, expressed concern that the project could be interpreted as a lapse of commitment to proven cancer treatments. Others wondered if anyone would use it. Over time, however, these concerns have been dispelled, and the nurses and doctors of St. Vincent have become the garden’s leading ambassadors.
Landscape architect Raquel Casillas-Hughes, founder of Plant Parenthood, Inc., took on the five-year project. The site includes a narrow strip of shade between two buildings and a broad, sunny exposure of unstable earth that required altering to support the atrium and tons of fine rockwork. She added special soils and mulches for the plants, and subtle lighting. Today, the crew that built and now maintains the garden often donates time and materials and adds humorous seasonal touches such as tumbleweed snowmen and rubber duckies in the fountain. Members of the hospital staff and community pitch in, too.
To reach the Healing Garden, patients simply step out from the atrium. The garden highlights Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus, formerly Vinca rosea). Periwinkle’s blue blossoms set the garden’s color scheme. In the shady nook, low-growing blue catmint (Nepeta faassenii) and contrasting variegated pineapple mint (Mentha suaveolens) form an island in the stream; the banks are overhung with Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium), pincushion plant (Scabiosa columbaria), and cupid’s dart (Catananche caerulea). Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) and tickseed (Coreopsis spp.) add bursts of yellow. Lavender arched bowers with seats, soon to be overgrown by lavish vines, are planted with roses. Bishop’s weed (Aegopodium podagraria ‘Variegatum’), groundcover of white and pale green, brightens the shadows. White gauras (Gaura lindheimeri ‘Whirling Butterflies’) billow throughout.
The sunny, southern part of the Healing Garden features a spectacular native-rock garden and a central fountain with bancos, built-in seats used by visitors to warm aching backs and to sit with family members. Calming lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), well mulched against New Mexico’s blazing summers and frigid winters, grows profusely, and blue-blossomed Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia ‘Filigrans’) contrast with ruddy ornamental grasses and colorful blooming sages (Salvia spp.).
The Healing Garden’s design includes comforting cultural reminders of daily life in New Mexico. Familiar native shrubs and trees include rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus spp.), hardy cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa), aspen, juniper, and pine. Stones engraved with encouraging doichos, time-proven Spanish witticisms, are scattered among the plantings—one reads “Arriba los corazónes!” (Hearts arise!). A historic cattle brand marks the bowers.
Best of all, however, is the pleasure and perspective the Healing Garden gives to patients, families, and hospital staff. Some seek a quiet bower for contemplation and steadying their nerves; some want to enjoy the fresh air and flowers. Critically ill patients often ask to be moved to the garden. All find the Healing Garden a place to set aside concerns of the moment and feel rejuvenated by nature.
Doree N. Pitkin, a freelance writer and editor, lives in Colorado but heads south to New Mexico often—especially during chile-roasting season.
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