Caitlin O’Hara was terrified. She was depressed. To defeat an aggressive infection, doctors had removed part of her left lung. Just 11 years old, she was hooked up to giant boxes that drained fluid from her chest.
That was 20 years ago, but O’Hara — an Ashland native now on the waiting list for a lung transplant — remembers escaping her sterile room at Children’s Hospital and walking into one of Boston’s most treasured and least known green spaces, a jewel of an oasis called the Prouty Garden.
O’Hara, diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at age 2, says she was reborn there.
“I walked into the Prouty Garden while somebody held the boxes attached to my chest tubes,’’ she said. “I found peace and reassurance. I felt the inspiration that nature gives you. It’s irreplaceable.’’
O’Hara, who has seen and is waiting to see again medical miracles in her life, is among thousands of people who are hoping for a miracle of another sort. More than 9,000 people have signed a petition to save the garden, about to be bulldozed to make room for more private rooms, a heart center, and an updated neonatal intensive care unit at Children’s.
Hospital administrators insist they’ve studied more than a dozen other options and the 23,000-square-foot garden’s footprint is the only place they can grow. Supporters of Prouty Garden say that would sacrifice nothing less than the hospital’s soul.
“It’s an easy decision to make if you’re an administrator, but it’s a much tougher decision to make if you work with patients,’’ said Dr. Elliott B. Martin Jr., a psychiatrist, who worked at Children’s for two years before leaving last June to practice at Newton-Wellesley Hospital.
“Despite the motto of Children’s Hospital — ‘Until every child is well’ — there are children who do not get better,’’ he said. “Would you want their last view of the world to be looking at four walls, or the sun rising through the branches of an ancient redwood tree?’’
Yes, in this lovely open space tucked between the hospital’s buildings, there’s a dawn redwood tree, a decorative fountain, quiet nooks, and sculptures, including one of a nurse cradling a teddy bear and holding the hand of a young child, buried up to his neck this week in a blanket of snow.
The garden, a gift to the hospital and named in memory of author Olive Higgins Prouty’s daughters, was designed by the famous Olmsted Brothers landscape architectural firm.
The hospital said its expansion plan includes the development of new open spaces and other interior gardens, but garden supporters say that cannot replicate what’s about to be lost. And they complain about an opaque process in which they have to pry development details from hospital officials who won’t answer simple questions.
“I’ve seen some alternatives, but I am not persuaded that they were taken seriously,’’ said W. Mason Smith III, Mrs. Prouty’s grandson who leads the trust that distributes up to $50,000 a year to maintain the garden that opened in 1956. “How much is it worth to keep the garden? Why should we keep Central Park?’’
Dr. Kevin Churchwell, Children’s chief operating officer, told me this week that hospital officials are approving the project in phases. But he also made this clear: The garden, as currently constituted, won’t survive.
“There’s no attempt to hide anything,’’ Churchwell said. “My door is open.’’
Good. He should expect to hear several knocks on that door from garden advocates who say the hospital has not given them the courtesy of acknowledging their existence.
Nowhere in this city, this region perhaps, do miracles occur with such profound regularity than in the surgical suites of Children’s Hospital. It makes for an imperfect villain.
But if hospital administrators won’t be dissuaded from bulldozing the Prouty Garden and are, as they insist, so focused on transparency, they should march into the garden this morning with a sledgehammer.
Steps inside Prouty Garden stands a plaque, attesting to “one of the most endearing areas at Children’s Hospital.’’
“Because of Mrs. Prouty’s vision, this Garden will exist as long as Children’s Hospital has patients, families, and staff to enjoy it,’’ it says.
If there’s no turning back, it’s time to tear down that sign.