WILLOWBROOK, Calif. — In this neighborhood just north of Compton, Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital catches the light. Tall, sleek, all windows and silver finish, the hospital sits as a kind of promise to South Los Angeles.
Not long ago, there was another hospital on the same property. Similar name, too: Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center. But most people didn’t want to end up there. It was a public hospital known for being dangerous and deadly, a medical train wreck in a community that had long been neglected and abused.
With the fall of King/Drew in 2007, and few health care facilities to serve the families of South LA for nearly a decade, county officials saw an opening. They bankrolled construction of a new, state-of-the-art MLK hospital in 2015, with a vow that this one would not fail its patients. This time, things would be different.
In the stillness of the hospital’s garden, one can lean into that trust. Right off the main lobby, between the ICU and a meditation room, is where the MLK “Azul Garden” lives. Azul as in blue, the color that permeates the breezeway through shade structures and lights and egg-shaped sculptures coated in pieces of blue glass. Blue as in the rectangle of sky overhead, the undertone of desert plants that line the walking path, as in healing.
This garden, designed by artist Dan Corson, is where ICU patients disoriented from medications and countless hours in windowless rooms come to breathe fresh air, to ask the sun what time of day it is. During the pandemic, when MLK hospital was so full of patients the meditation room became overflow space for the emergency room, this is where Covid survivors did gentle exercises to regain their strength. And the oblivious birds played, as they do now, in a tall red box eucalyptus tree, their squeaks the only sound other than the low hum of the hospital’s ventilation systems on a quiet May morning.
A hospital garden can be many things. It can be a semi-wild botanical garden next door, as at UCLA. Or it can be a prescriptive, meticulous arrangement of aesthetically pleasing plants and seating hand-selected by a professional designer, as at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles. It can be, like one on the roof of Boston Medical Center, a communal effort — produce and herbs sprouting from soil turned by many hands, seeds pushed into dirt by tiny, sticky fingers and old, gnarled ones. A garden can be an attempt at reconciliation in a place where an old and beloved space was redeveloped, like the one at Boston Children’s Hospital.
There are some guidelines. The optimal restorative garden in a hospital requires that “at least 70% of its surface be green and planted, with a variety of colors and textures” and pleasing seasonal changes, according to former UC Berkeley professor Clare Marcus Cooper. It also is accessible for those in wheelchairs or with mobility aids, and has “engaging distractions,” like water features, sculptures, or other art. This garden has seating in the sun and in the shade, as well as private places for a person to be alone, and movable seating in places where a family could gather, said Cooper, who wrote “Therapeutic Landscapes,” a book on the subject. She is a notable figure in the rather niche world of restorative gardens, and has a discerning eye for what works and what doesn’t.
“Overall, a hospital garden should provide an environment as different as possible from the straight lines, muted colors, and sanitized — perhaps fearful — atmosphere of a hospital interior,” she said. (One of her favorite restorative gardens is the 8,000-square-foot rooftop one at St. Louis Children’s Hospital.)
These kinds of spaces, often labeled restorative, healing, relaxation or meditation gardens, can actually help people. Studies suggest exposure to nature is beneficial for well-being, including by reducing health care worker burnout and supporting patients’ recuperation. But there are also many smaller, in-between uses.
Boston Children’s Hospital has multiple indoor and outdoor gardens integrated into their city hospital campus.
Except for the birth of a child — or perhaps a final, hopeful session of cancer treatment — there are few joyful reasons to be at a hospital. Where a hospital room can be a chest of endless devastations, nature is a realm of possibility. The trees have been there through it all, serene witnesses to human life. Plants teach patience and adaptation, and remind us that growth, death, and regeneration are all natural.
A garden can be a place of rest for the weary-hearted and weak-limbed, for the hopeless and finger-crossed. A place where a stone painted with an encouraging message can make someone break down in tears. Where a butterfly can be a reminder, a messenger, or even evoke an ancestor. The garden can tenderly hold one’s chaos and grief and fury and exhaustion, its plants a kind of soul medicine.
As summer unfurls in Santa Monica, on the other side of town from MLK hospital, the breeze carries perfume. Chasing the sweet fragrance through the neighborhood leads to something unexpected behind an opening in the hedge: a sea of jasmine parted by statuesque evergreen trees. It’s a garden behind the emergency room of Saint John’s Health Center, a local system with Catholic roots reflected in the enormous cross on the front of the main building.
There are benches along the flat, curved loop of a walkway that leads through this garden. Clusters of birds of paradise burst through the rivers of white jasmine in the corners. Bees circle the intoxicating aroma. And when the ambulance bay nearby becomes still and the voices of passersby fade, there is just the scent and the cool air. There is just the rustling of leaves.
There is just you, and your beating heart, and the garden.
Do you have a favorite hospital garden or a memorable experience in one? Share it with us: [email protected].
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