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Volunteer gardeners get creative to help rehab patients

Aug. 1, 2019, 10:04 AM

Stallworth patients Lane Carter, left, and Wanda Drake create butterfly gardens with the help of a program volunteer. (photo by Kelsey Herbers)

by Kelsey Herbers

Every other Wednesday around 10 a.m., five volunteer gardeners can be seen walking through the front doors of Vanderbilt Stallworth Rehabilitation Hospital with baskets of fresh-picked flowers, leaves, pinecones and rocks — all from their yards or from strolls in the woods.

They spread the supplies on a long table inside the facility’s Quiet Gym and anxiously await to greet patients with an enthusiasm that will spark creativity, imagination and motivation to improve their physical condition.

The group, comprised of volunteers Harriet Karro, Susan Murphy, Ro Shulenberger, Eba Hobbs and Kathy Ramsey, facilitates Stallworth’s Garden Therapy Program, which engages patients in nature-related workshops that focus on sensory stimulation and the use of fine motor skills. Each session holds a new activity brainstormed by the volunteers to count toward patients’ daily required medical rehabilitation time while also providing a social setting and creative diversion.

The Stallworth courtyard was transformed by the efforts of gardening volunteers, much to the appreciation of both patients and employees. (photo by Kelsey Herbers)

Examples of past activities include arranging floral bouquets, crafting portable butterfly gardens in pots, decorating straw hats with flowers in honor of Kentucky Derby weekend and creating lavender sashes to bring a fresh scent to a patient’s hospital room.

“These activities take away from patients’ anxiety and puts their focus on something that’s calming and soothing for their mental health,” said Renee Rosati, DO, Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation resident at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, who first came up with the idea to include nature-related activities in patients’ rehabilitation.

Patients use tools that require a certain degree of dexterity to complete the projects, including scissors, hot glue guns, paintbrushes and twine, each providing benefits for patients’ fine motor abilities. Some activities include reaching upward or other wide arm movements, which incorporate gross motor skills, and patients are encouraged to stand during the activity to work on their balance.

The most important aspect of the program is the enjoyable diversion it creates, giving patients the motivation to push harder than they have before.

“Motivation is key, and we see how an enjoyable task can divert a patient away from realizing they have stood for 15 minutes more than they usually would,” said Hannah Mariani, occupational therapist at Stallworth. “Our goal is to get patients back to doing the things they love as safe and independent as possible. This group allows us to show our patients firsthand they may be closer than they think.”

Butterfly gardens not only add beauty and color to the hospital, but also help patients regain motor skills. (photo by Kelsey Herbers)

According to Beverly Stevens, a Stallworth occupational therapist, the social aspect of the program can also make a world of difference. Patients who don’t engage in much conversation with their therapists have been observed interacting freely with other patients.

The idea for the Garden Therapy Program was initiated when Rosati realized Stallworth’s existing courtyard was being underused. Hoping to incorporate nature into a program that could provide patient engagement, she reached out to local garden clubs requesting ideas and assistance.

Karro and Murphy responded and helped initiate the program by convincing Stallworth staff of the value a program like this could hold for patients.

The program’s volunteers are responsible for planning project ideas, bringing their own supplies and cleaning up after each session. In addition to their regular activities, the team helped liven up Stallworth’s courtyard by planting sweet potato vines, basil, daisies, roses, mint, rosemary and oregano.

“Our design in the already existing raised bed attempts to honor the senses and attract pollinators with the use of bright flowers, climbers, vines and herbs. Some plants are native species, and all choices were made to thrive in bright sunlight, summer heat and sporadic watering,” said Murphy.

Plants are cared for in collaboration with Vanderbilt’s Plant Operations services. Patients are welcome to clip plants from the bed to brighten their rooms, and volunteers have even found anonymously donated plants in their place.

The team also painted several brightly-colored birdhouses, which adorn the courtyard’s surfaces with a note saying, “Take me home with you.”

For Karro, all the work the program requires is balanced by the smiles on patients’ faces.

“I love interacting with the patients — seeing them arrive at the door with facial expressions that range from skepticism, to apprehension, to enthusiasm; watching them become so absorbed in a creative activity that they hardly even realize they’re working on improvement of their fine motor skills; and finally, seeing them leave the session with a smile and the fruits of their creative labor — often something that will adorn their hospital room and, ultimately, their home,” said Karro. “I truly enjoy every aspect of my involvement as a garden therapy volunteer.”

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