Rehab in a healing garden

Nature can be more powerful than any medication.

When the new Martha’s Vineyard Hospital was in the planning stages a decade ago, there was a movement rippling across Europe and the United States — hospital renovation to promote healing. Get rid of the drab, dismal institutions of yore. Build instead inviting, soothing hospitals with soft lighting, inspiring views, single rooms, healing gardens, and lots of art. The argument ran: patients will heal quicker, nurses will remain loyal to their employers, and doctors will perform better.

These design aspirations are met in many observable ways at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. Art graces every public corridor. Rooms accommodate just one patient instead of two — for which I was profoundly grateful during a recent long, painful stay rehabbing from a fractured pelvis. And the healing garden is there — in fact two rooftop gardens are accessible to patients: one overlooking the harbor; the other with a view of Lagoon Pond.

The Martha’s Vineyard Hospital has a unique “swing bed program” — the ability to admit both acutely ill patients and rehabbers such as myself. Off-Island hospitals send post surgical patients and others seeking physical, occupational, or speech therapy to a rehab hospital like Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in East Sandwich or a skilled nursing facility (SNF) such as JML Nursing Home in Falmouth. As a critical care hospital (one of only three in the state) Martha’s Vineyard Hospital beds can be converted between serving very sick patients needing acute care level nursing, and not so sick folks like me who need only skilled nursing care.

The term “healing gardens” is most often applied to green spaces in hospitals and healthcare facilities that specifically aim to improve health outcomes. These gardens provide a place of refuge and promote relief from symptoms and stress, and an overall sense of wellbeing and hope.

This all rang true during my recent physical therapy on the hospital roof. I noticed my pain diminished, and my spirits soared. “Why?” I asked hospital physical therapist, Aleka Chouramanis. “Distraction?” she suggested. 

Little inside the hospital took the focus off my pain. Outside, I was captivated by kite surfers dancing with the wind, boats cruising over the lagoon, crickets jumping out of the way of my walker, and butterflies and bees alighted on flowers. On windy days, the tall grasses waved in a near hypnotic way.

But more than just distraction was at work — a kind of deep, spiritual calm settled over me in the garden. I got a mood boost from the sunshine, which releases serotonin and endorphins — hormones associated with happier mood, less depression, and overall calm, explained Dr. Michael Holick, M.D., director of the Heliotherapy, Light, and Skin Research Center at Boston University Medical Center. “You’ll notice immediately that you simply feel better. That’s your whole system responding to sun,” Dr. Holick said. 

Few other patients appeared in the garden. I asked head therapist Peter Lorenzo why. He shrugged and said people don’t like to go outside.

This is not unique to Martha’s Vineyard. Nationally, physicians are responding by prescribing time outdoors as the best possible cure for a growing list of ailments. Being outside, scientists say, lowers blood pressure, reduces stress-hormone levels, promotes physical healing, bolsters immune-system function, raises self-esteem, improves mood, curtails the need for painkillers, and reduces inflammation.

Added to all these non-pharmaceutical advantages I gained in the healing garden — a tan. When the nurse clipped the ID bracelet from my wrist, there was a band of pale skin beneath it. You’d think I’d been at the beach.