When Amanda Johnston arrived at Boston Children’s Hospital with her infant daughter, Lydia, in April 2010, she felt lost in the city. The 33-year-old from Kansas City, Mo., had no friends or family in Boston, and her 5-month-old daughter was sick and, later, dying.
Over the next 15 months, as her daughter battled esophageal atresia, a severe congenital defect, Johnston and her husband spent most of their time at the hospital, much of it receiving bad news. She had only one place of solace: the Prouty Garden, an open expanse of grass and trees between hospital buildings, about a five-minute walk from the hospital lobby.
“It was somewhere I could go and have lunch or make a phone call or just step away from the hospital world for a moment’s peace,” she said. “I would go there sometimes to feed the birds and walk around looking at the flowers. When you’re stuck in an ICU all day, fresh air helps.”
For Johnston and others, the garden is a green oasis in the otherwise congested Longwood neighborhood, a stretch that in addition to Boston Children’s includes a knot of other medical institutions, including Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. With its decorative fountain and small stone animals, the garden is also, and above all, a retreat for children forced to spend weeks and sometimes months within hospital walls.
But the surrounding congestion may soon spell the garden’s demise.
Children’s has plans for a 12-story, approximately $600 million expansion that would be built over the garden area, presuming the permits are issued and the plan is approved by the hospital board. That new construction would allow for more single-bed patient rooms.
The garden is the only feasible space left for such expansion, administrators say.
“We’re down to our last square foot,” said Charles Weinstein, vice president for real estate, planning, and development at Children’s.
After exploring 18 other potential building locations over the past five years, he said administrators concluded the garden was the only place that made “technical and financial” sense. Three-quarters of the permitting process has been completed, Weinstein said, and if all goes as hoped, construction could begin as early as next year.
Weinstein believes the new building is a key step in improving patient care. Single-bed rooms decrease the risk of infection, he said, and usually result in shorter and more pleasant hospital stays.
Under the hospital’s expansion plans, 82 beds currently placed in semi-private rooms will be put into new single rooms, which will include sleeping space, showers, and clothing storage areas for parents.
To compensate for building over the garden, and as part of an effort to increase green space in the hospital, the new addition will include several indoor and outdoor gardens, Weinstein said, including a rooftop terrace and interior sanctuary on the 12th floor. The garden space will total about 34,000 square feet, and the interior space will be usable year-round and by patients too sick to go outdoors. Studies have consistently shown that green space encourages healing and can help alleviate anger, stress, and pain.
But no new green space will be as continuously large as the Prouty Garden — itself about 23,000 square feet — and many staff, patients, and parents say they would lament its closing. An online petition to save the garden has garnered more than 6,000 signatures.
“The garden was such a place of peace for me the four months I stayed with my infant son at the hospital,” wrote one signee.
Anne Gamble, a retired volunteer at Boston Children’s who oversees the petition, said the Prouty Garden offers something no indoor garden can: birds, fresh air, and grass. On her latest visit to the garden earlier this spring, she said she saw a young girl, maybe 12 years old, sitting by the fountain.
“I stopped and chatted with her and her mother and found out that this was the first time she had been allowed outside in three weeks,” Gamble said. “Her mother told me the garden was making a world of difference. Children need to see the sky and birds flying and just absorb the space and fresh air.”
On a recent weekday, the garden bustled with activity. It was an especially warm summer afternoon, and as patients ambled about and staff ate their lunches two musicians harmonized by the old dawn redwood.
Richard Bruun, 55, an orthodontist at the hospital, relaxed on a bench. He said he likes to stop by the garden for a few moments a day to see patients enjoying the outdoors. It’s good for him, too, he said, to spend a few quiet minutes away from work.
If the hospital builds over the garden, the Olive Higgins Prouty Foundation, named for the woman who endowed it in 1956, will have to decide whether to continue donating about $40,000 a year to the hospital, said Mason Smith, Prouty’s grandson and president of the foundation. He said he understands hospital administrators’ need for a new clinical building, but hopes they will find a way to save the garden, too.
No matter what happens, Nicole Altieri says the garden will remain an inextricable part of her son’s childhood. Diagnosed with heart problems shortly after his birth, he spent some of his first few weeks at the hospital, returning at 13 months for a heart transplant. The Prouty Garden was the first place he ever touched grass.
“He couldn’t speak, but he would sign, ‘I want to go outside, I want to go outside,’ all the time,” she said.
“Even now, when he goes back to checkups, he always wants to get there early so he can run around the garden first,” she said.