When the young mother brought her 3-year-old son for cancer treatment at Boston Children’s Hospital, she expected cutting-edge medicine, and hoped for caring nurses and doctors. But one of his greatest benefits came from an unexpected source: the boy’s daily visits to the hospital’s expansive garden to feed bread to the birds. “For those few moments he was just a child playing,” the mother recalled. “He was free.”
Another mom spent time in the same garden while her daughter, 2, was being treated for a brain tumor. “I am convinced to this day,” she says, “that that garden did as much to get us through those long, long days as did the dedicated doctors and staff.”
Yet another couple had come from Europe to pursue lifesaving treatment for their ailing child. But cure proved elusive, and when medical options were exhausted, the heartbroken parents had one final wish. When life support had to be withdrawn, they wanted it done at sunrise — in the garden.
For nearly six decades, the Prouty Garden has been a beacon at Children’s, a half-acre oasis where patients and their families find respite, rejuvenation, and, in some cases, a sacred space and to say goodbye.
Now that remarkable resource is slated to be destroyed. On Dec. 18, the Boston Children’s Hospital leadership announced plans for a multistory, $600 million new building to include a state-of-the-art neonatal intensive care unit and more private rooms. The plan calls for the new building to be built on the site of the Prouty Garden — sacrificing the healing benefit it has held for generations of patients and their families.
Before it’s too late, Children’s needs to wake up and recognize its infinite value and save the garden. Stop the bulldozers. Engage the brightest, most creative architects to rethink the plan to preserve the beloved Prouty Garden AND accommodate the necessary expansion.
The garden has it origins in 1953, when William Wolbach, then the hospital’s president, encouraged Olive Higgins Prouty, the well-known author and poet, to create a memorial to two of her children on the hospital’s property. She hired the Olmsted Brothers design firm, known for designing such gems as the Fresh Pond and New Orleans’s Audubon Park, and personally oversaw the selection of plants, trees, and sculptures.
Prouty also sought assurance from Wolbach that the garden would endure as long as there were patients to enjoy it —or, to borrow a phrase from the hospital’s more contemporary motto, until every child is well. His answer should echo in the ears of today’s hospital board: “I cannot imagine anyone having an opinion other than that the garden is a great asset . . . [a] necessary contrast to the institutionalized impersonality of the hospital bricks and mortar, and the stress of pain and uncertainty.” There are promises to keep.
Already, several hospital benefactors have threatened to revoke their gifts and planned bequests should the hospital opt to destroy the integrity of the garden.
There is plenty of research demonstrating the therapeutic value of gardens. One study reported that patients whose windows overlooked leafy trees healed more rapidly, required less pain medication, and had fewer post-surgical complications. Another found that 90 percent of hospital garden visitors reported positive changes in mood, attitude, and coping.
Dr. Clare Cooper Marcus, an emeritus professor of landscape architecture at the University of California at Berkeley and a leading expert in therapeutic landscaping, has deemed the garden “one of the most successful hospital gardens in the country.” Its mature shade trees, circular pond and fountain, and inviting walkways provide respite for patients, families, and staff alike. It also features private alcoves for solitude, meditation and — when needed — moments of grief.
Planners have suggested that in place of the garden, the new facilities would incorporate “pocket gardens” and other indoor green spaces. But could those come close to replacing the treasure we have, complete with towering trees and swaths of grass? Think of it this way: Would you rather wander amidst a few shopping mall palms or in Central Park?
Over 8,000 people have answered that question by supporting an online petition beseeching Children’s to find a way to save the Prouty Garden, many of them former patients and their parents. “When I was 13 years old I spent over five weeks at Boston Children’s relearning to walk,” wrote one signer. “That garden saved my life.”
Sentiments like that should guide the leadership of the hospital, renowned as the nation’s premiere pediatric institution, treating some of the sickest children from all over the world. Certainly the hospital needs to upgrade its facilities in order to attract the top medical professionals and offer the most effective treatments. But it also has a responsibility to lead in other ways — in this case, by showing that there is far more to healing than medications, MRIs, and operating tables. And that some things have value and honor that simply cannot be measured on spreadsheets or ledgers.
Elaine C. Meyer is director of the Institute for Professionalism and Ethical Practice at Boston Children’s Hospital and associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.