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Garden therapy plants the seeds of recovery

Horticulture program relieves the effects of illness and injury

Doctors at Portland's Legacy Health System hospitals don't always start by asking patients about their pain. Instead they may say, 'How are your chives?'

The question is prompted by Legacy's horticultural therapy program, which uses gardening to help patients recover the physical, mental, social and psychological skills they have lost through illness or injury.

Such losses, which can happen at any age, can shatter plans and expectations for the future.

For example, when 77-year-old Legacy patient Harold 'Hal' Kaufman had a stroke Jan. 17 that paralyzed his left side, he and his wife were operating a small printing business in Hillsboro.

'This was devastating to us,' Kaufman says. 'We weren't ready to retire yet.'

And when 39-year-old patient Lilly Longshore fell out of bed early on the morning of Jan. 28 and broke her neck Ñ an injury that left her a quadriplegic Ñ she had a job as a civil engineer and a 2-year-old son to raise.

It's hard to believe that patients as severely injured as Kaufman and Longshore can be helped by something as apparently simple and painless as planting seeds and bulbs, picking off spent blooms and watering plants. But they can.

According to the American Horticultural Therapy Association, the health benefits of gardening have been known since at least 1812, when Benjamin Rush Ñ a physician and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence Ñ noted it in his work on mental illness.

After World War II, horticulture was used as occupational therapy for wounded veterans. Today it's widely used in rehabilitation programs and care facilities, and Legacy offers a 150-hour horticultural therapy certificate program, one of only two in the country.

The certificate program's director is Teresia Hazen, a registered horticultural therapist who also works with Legacy Rehabilitation Services patients such as Kaufman and Longshore.

According to Hazen, horticultural therapy helps patients recover from physical injuries by exercising their eyes, fingers, hands, arms and upper bodies. It also helps stroke patients such as Kaufman work their damaged brains through such mental exercise as identifying flowers and counting seeds.

'Fifty-four percent of our patients are stroke patients,' Hazen says. 'All of them have cognitive goals. We want them to go home and be safe.'

Hazen says horticultural therapy can also help with the psychological trauma that results from major physical injury by increasing self-esteem and giving patients a common interest to share with others, a creative outlet and something to be enthusiastic about for the future.

Because Kaufman has had a stroke, Hazen exercises his mind by getting him to identify flowers and describe their smell.

'This is a hyacinth,' he says, leaning over a container bulb garden planted by a previous patient. 'It smells like Hawaii.'

To exercise his body, she instructs him to snip off spent blossoms with scissors held in his stroke-damaged left hand. 'Don't show my wife this,' Kaufman quips. 'She'll make me do it.'

All the while, Kaufman, who is hours away from being discharged, is socializing with Longshore, now in her fifth session with Hazen. All three are marveling over Longshore's progress. Two days ago, she couldn't put her fingers together to pinch off a seedling; now she can. Two days ago, she couldn't make scissors cut; now she can.

As a result of these changes, both Kaufman and Longshore say that they are true believers in the power of rehabilitation therapy, including horticulture therapy.

'I tell you, this place is a miracle worker. You work miracles,' Kaufman tells Hazen, with whom he worked for 2 1/2 weeks at Legacy Good Samaritan Hospital & Medical Center following his transfer from another facility. 'Six weeks ago, I couldn't move.'

Longshore, noting that her injury technically left her a quadriplegic, points out that she is now moving her arms. 'My arms are not supposed to work that well,' she says. 'I call that a miracle.'

Even her hands, which she says are more impaired than her arms, are improving.

'A week ago, I could left-click on the computer, but not right-click,' says Longshore, whose goal is to return to her job as a wastewater engineer for the city of Vancouver with the help of specially designed equipment. 'I hope to be able to improve on that. It's amazing what therapy does.'

Unlike Kaufman, however, Longshore is a little iffy about how much gardening she'll do once she's released from Legacy, which is tentatively scheduled to be in late March. 'I have a 2-year-old,' she says. 'I don't have a lot of time to pull weeds.'

Contact Janine Robben at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..