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Nature and Health Come Together at Syracuse VA Medical Center

Graduate student’s project examines health benefits of gardening

William Bryant, Syracuse VA SCI/Rehabilitation program manager, pictured left, presents Dr. Lee Newman and Daniel Collins with a certificate of appreciation for their therapeutic horticulture program at the VA.

By Karen B. Moore

Using the connection between nature and health to benefit veterans was the impetus behind a therapeutic horticulture program started by an ESF professor and her graduate student at the Syracuse VA Medical Center.

"It's important to differentiate between horticulture therapy and therapeutic horticulture," said Dr. Lee Newman.

Horticultural therapy is done by registered therapists using gardening and gardening-related activities as a form of physical therapy, she said.

"Therapeutic horticulture is what we do," said Newman. "We are not registered therapists. We are using the garden and gardening-related activities to improve the health and well-being of the patients, including their psychological outlook, but it is not part of a formal physical therapy program."

Under the supervision of Newman, the therapeutic horticulture project began in 2013 as Daniel Collins' graduate research project at the VA. Since its inception, it has expanded to the Syracuse-area Brookdale care facility that works with patients who have memory-related disorders, and to Clear Path for Veterans in Chittenango. The Clear Path program focuses on culinary gardening to support the organization's culinary program, according to Newman.

The program at the VA has multiple components that Collins maintains, including a large three-season rooftop garden, plants in the recreation room, and plants in two sitting rooms where patients can go to visit with their families and relax. "We also have plants that can be moved into the patients' rooms," Newman said, "and do different plant and gardening-based activities with the patients depending on the season."

In January, Newman, Collins and the veterans start planting seeds. "These will eventually go either on the rooftop garden or be taken out to Clear Path to be used in their kitchen garden or be taken home by the patients for their home gardens," Newman said.

Spring and summer activities center on the rooftop garden with watering, pruning and weeding taking place.

"As we move into the late summer and fall, there's a lot of harvesting of the plants," Newman said. The results of their labor - tomatoes, fruits, herbs - are used for cooking. "The veterans make pestos and sauces, and dry the herbs down for teas," she said.

Late fall and early winter focus on planting bulbs that will bloom during the winter holidays, planting poinsettias and creating holiday decorations with gardening-related themes.

The number of veterans involved in the program changes weekly, said Collins. "The unit we primarily work with is a 30-bed unit," he said. "It's almost never full, with many of the patients there for a three-day stretch for their annual checkup."

The transient nature of the patients is both "tricky and nice," said Collins. "When we do get those patients who are there for a long period of time they tend to be more involved with the program. We've leaned on them a little bit and said, 'Hey, you really like doing this. If you ever come around and see the plants need water feel free to do it,' and we show them how to tell if they've had too much water or not enough."

The program doesn't stop at the doors of the VA. Newman has hosted groups of veterans on the ESF campus. They've come for lunch in the Gateway Center and toured the green roof with Dr. Donald Leopold, chair of the Department of Environmental and Forest Biology. Veterans have also come during Earth Week, when they tie-dyed T-shirts with the assistance of ESF students.

A number of undergraduate students are also involved with the project assisting with the patients, maintaining the plants, and helping with general maintenance and activities.

"We had one student who did her honors project and developed a guidebook on the plants," said Newman. Two other undergrads have begun doing more activities with the veterans, she said.

"Dan is the person that really rides herd on all these undergrads and keeps them on task and gets them opportunities to be more involved," said Newman. "Dan is the real hands-on person doing everything over there."

One thing Collins couldn't do was build accessible garden beds for the rooftop garden. A recent partnership with Home Depot in Dewitt however made the long-needed enhancements possible. The accessible beds - garden boxes supported by adjustable PVC pipes - allow for wheelchairs to fit underneath, can be rolled inside on inclement days and can be adjusted to accommodate people standing or sitting.

"We designed them, Home Depot supplied the materials and the veterans at Clear Path built them," Newman said. The project also received funding from the Gifford Foundation and the Women's Auxiliary of the American Legion.

"Jayne Fust (an employee in ESF's Office of Physical Plant and Facilities) was past president of the Auxiliary and designated the ESF program the group's charity during her term," said Newman. "It's very definitely a community-type of program that we have going here."

With the program running successfully, the next step is to secure the needed approvals from the VA to conduct a study of the impact therapeutic horticulture has on veterans, said Newman. Newman and Collins don't expect that to be too difficult as Collins' biggest proponent is Dr. Stephen Lebduska, a physician at the VA and an ESF alumnus serving on his review committee.

"Dr. Lebduska was head of the spinal trauma unit and got us entrance into the VA … No one was saying 'no,' but people were passing us around then someone recommended Dr. Lebduska," said Newman. "I sent him an email and within day or two he responded saying, 'I'm a former ESF grad and would love to talk to you!' "

"I think this program is wonderful," said Lebduska. "More and more research comes out about how the environment comes into play in healing. Hospitals are a sterile environment … anytime you can have living things around patients it's good."

"Hopefully we will be able to work everything out very shortly to do the surveys," Newman said. Collins has been working with ESF faculty members from a wide range of disciplines to ensure the survey results are as informative as possible.

Collins expects to graduate in 2019 after he finishes the study and finds a new grad student to take over. "That was part of the agreement," he said, "a commitment to the VA that this would not end with me. That it would continue on."