Goal of Bergan Mercy's healing garden: Reduce stress

Carlos Figueroa wheels mulch Tuesday during the completion of the healing garden at Bergan Mercy Medical Center.

• Read more about healing landscapes.

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The walk down the long hallway to the radiation oncology unit at Bergan Mercy Medical Center hasn't been all that pleasant for the past couple of years.

Besides the fact that patients are heading to a radiation treatment, the view out the window has been of 6,400 square feet of dirt and mulch.

Today, the view and the space are improved. Hospital officials hope patients' attitudes and general health will be, too.

What's in the garden

The plants in the healing garden at Bergan Mercy Medical Center are used not only for their long bloom times but also because they are less likely to attract bees or other insects and are not fragrant, Alegent Creighton Health officials said. Some of the plants and trees include:

Columnar white pine

Vanderwolf pine

Armstrong maple


Columnar oak

Japanese red maple

Weeping spruce

Columnar spruce

Dense yew

Boston ivy

Oakleaf hydrangea

Tiger eyes sumac

Green velvet boxwood

Karl Foerster grass





Bergan officials are dedicating a “healing garden” in the space, incorporating flowers, plants, trees, a fountain and tables, chairs and benches. Crews from Lanoha Nurseries have just finished planting the garden. The $250,000 cost of the project was paid by private donors, hospital staff and the Alegent Creighton Health Foundation.

The dedication is at 4 p.m. today.

The goal behind healing gardens is to reduce the stress levels of patients and hospital staff members.

Healing gardens don't heal anyone of cancer or a broken bone, said Clare Cooper Marcus, professor emerita in the departments of architecture and landscape architecture at the University of California, Berkeley.

“What the whole movement is about is some legitimate, empirical research that shows when a person is stressed — and most people are stressed in a hospital — and they move from a stressful environment into a natural or green or garden environment, their stress level goes down, their pulse rate reduces, their immune system improves.”

Samantha Kirch knows what Cooper Marcus is talking about. Kirch, 23, has been at Methodist Women's Hospital since June 3 with pregnancy complications. She is on bed rest but is able to go to the hospital's healing garden in a wheelchair.

“I have a favorite spot over by a little waterfall area, where it has rocks and a pond and there's all the bushes and trees,” she said. “You can hear the birds, and it's really beautiful and peaceful.

“You come back feeling so much better. I feel like I'm healthier because I can go and spend that time out there. I can always tell a difference.”

Not every garden at a hospital is a healing garden. Cooper Marcus, who has co-authored a book on the subject that comes out in October, said some hospitals across the country “are putting these in with very little information about what should be incorporated in them and calling them a healing garden.”

The requirements of a good healing garden, she said, are not that different from a regular garden. “One overall requirement is it's predominantly green,” she said. “Our research has suggested at least 70 percent green to 30 percent hard surfaces, meaning the paths or patios.”

The outdoor plaza at the Children's Specialty Pediatric Center at Children's Hospital & Medical Center includes large planters filled with flowers on a patio dotted with commemorative bricks with inscriptions recognizing loved ones or memorializing children.

The hospital also has a rooftop terrace and a garden just outside the main entrance.

They're meant to be areas where families can relax, said Cherie Lytle, a spokeswoman for Children's, but “we wouldn't presume to call any of these outdoor spaces healing gardens.”

Alegent Creighton Health officials have researched the topic over the past several years, having just finished a healing garden at Immanuel Medical Center and operating others at Mercy Hospital in Council Bluffs and Lakeside Hospital in west Omaha. Officials consulted with patients and families on the designs and visited gardens at other hospitals around the country, said Becki Swanson, Alegent Creighton's cancer center operations director.

“For cancer patients,” she said, “some of the treatments are all day long. They might be sitting there for eight hours. One of the things that (patients) talked about was having something that's green, (plus) the water features.”

Because of concerns about cancer patients' compromised immune systems and allergic reactions, the indoor garden at Lakeside has no dirt, flowing water or even real plants, Swanson said. The “water feature” is a wall with wavy lines on it that constantly change color from dark blue to light blue to greenish blue to purple. The birch tree under a large skylight is a real tree that has been cured and adorned with artificial leaves. The other plants and grasses scattered among the stonework and benches are artificial.

Ronda Filyau was in the garden, called the Family Oasis, on Wednesday. She had used it many times over the past couple of years while visiting her father, who died in March 2012, and her uncle, who is back in the hospital. “It's kind of like walking out of the hospital atmosphere into a very serene, relaxing, unstressful area.”

Hospitals aren't the only places you can find healing gardens. Lakeside Village and the Landing, retirement communities in Omaha and Lincoln, both have enclosed gardens for residents who have Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia, said Deb Welk, vice president of health care for Immanuel, which runs the facilities.

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