Last year, Occupational Therapy Assistant Suzie Pech was feeling burnt out. Two long years of sickness, loss and restrictions as a result of the pandemic had taken a toll, and all the changes caused her to feel stressed and discouraged. She missed being able to work in the facility’s spacious therapy gym, host group therapy sessions and work alongside her co-workers.
Each day, Suzie showed up and worked diligently to provide her patients at Life Care Center of Hickory Woods with the best possible care, but she had lost her passion for therapy.
Then one day in early spring, Suzie decided to bring three tomato plants to work.
“I was going to plant the tomato plants at home, and I thought, ‘No, I’ll bring them to work, and it will give us something else to do, something outside,’” Suzie said.
At the time, Suzie had a few patients who liked to garden, so with the help of a few fellow therapists she took the residents outside to plant the tomato seedlings in the raised beds in the facility’s central courtyard.
The residents enjoyed the activity, so Suzie bought more plants and took the residents outside again.
The weeks passed, and Suzie, the residents and the therapists continued venturing outside to care for the germinating plants, and as they did, more and more residents and therapists joined them.
By August, over 42 residents were helping care for the plants. What had begun as a small tomato patch had grown into a fully developed garden complete with bell peppers, watermelon, squash, pumpkins, cantaloupe, zucchini, carrots, green beans, pole beans, spinach, and three different types of peppers.
But participants reaped more than just fresh produce from the garden. In a world still reeling from sickness, stress and a global pandemic, the horticultural program provided practical therapy, stress relief and joy to everyone who participated in the garden –– including Suzie.
The garden provided a way for residents to find motivation and receive therapy at the same time.
Suzie recalled one patient over the summer who was very depressed and anxious and did not want to come out of her room or participate in therapy.
One day, Suzie started chatting with her about gardening, and shortly after, the patient went out to the garden.
Suzie watched as her previously scared patient stood up from her wheelchair and reached to pick produce off a nearby plant.
She then continued standing, picking fresh vegetables and enjoying the garden. When the patient came back into the facility later that day, Suzie asked her what she thought of her therapy, referring to her gardening.
“That wasn’t therapy,” the patient replied. But Suzie explained that while picking produce, the resident had stood up, balanced and reached in all planes –– all activities they had been practicing in therapy.
“It kind of changed things for her,” Suzie said about the patient’s experience in the garden. “After that, she was a lot more receptive and wasn’t as scared to come to therapy.”
Suzie also had stroke patients out in the garden using their affected side to harvest produce, hold a hose and water plants, and residents with amputations stood outside and practiced functional reaching and side-stepping on uneven surfaces while trying to pick fresh vegetables.
She even took a resident with a vision impairment out to the garden to practice his depth perception and complete other vision exercises.
“It’s just a functional task of what we are doing in the gym,” Suzie said about her garden therapy.
A lovely garden
As residents participated in the garden last summer, they had a tremendous amount of fun.
From soaking up warm sunlight and breathing clean air to socializing or simply sharing their gardening experiences, everyone who participated enjoyed the benefits.
Suzie recalled one gentleman who loved to garden but couldn’t stand to reach the raised beds, so she adapted a piece of equipment that allowed him to get out of his wheelchair and stand. Once he had his hands in the dirt, the patient had a wonderful time.
“He was so excited to be able to plant some seeds and everything; he planted our pumpkins,” Suzie said proudly. “And he was so excited to do that.”
Another patient loved the garden so much that she returned to the facility after her discharge to donate marigolds.
When John Fischer, division rehab director, visited the facility last year, Suzie showed him the garden and shared how she accidentally started the program.
John was impressed by her story and what he saw.
“We support incorporating horticulture programs with therapy and the activities department, but what Suzie initiated is amazing,” John said about the program. “The complete utilization of space in the courtyard and amount of people involved – residents and associates – is overwhelming.”
“It’s been a lovely thing,” Suzie said about the garden. “Everybody has loved it.”
Throughout last year, Suzie watched as her patients received physical, emotional and social benefits from the garden, and she saw the incredible joy it brought them.
Seeing the smiles on her patients’ faces while they picked fresh produce and hearing the excitement in their voices as they talked about the garden gave her great joy and restored her motivation and passion for therapy.
“I’ll be honest, the patients enjoyed it, but I’ve enjoyed it more,” Suzie said about the garden. “I think I’ve gotten more out of it than anybody.”
Suzie was so impressed with the results of the program that she continued it for as long as she could.
Well into the fall, after most of the plants had died, Suzie and the residents continued to work in the garden, harvesting seeds and drying them so they would have seeds to plant this spring, as well as planting garlic. Suzie started the gardening program up again this spring and says she will continue it for the rest of her career.
“The garden was something to do, and I was so grateful to find something that made therapy a little bit more exciting, a little more fun,” Suzie shared. “It’s benefited me incredibly as a therapist because I’ve gotten to enjoy this with my folks. That’s really the big gift for me.”