Rooftop garden at St. Paul Children's aims to help the healing

  • Article by: KIM PALMER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 17, 2013 - 10:33 AM

With its interactive sculptures and kid-safe plants, the new rooftop garden at Children’s Hospital in St. Paul offers a refuge for patients and their parents.

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While on the new rooftop garden at Children’s Hospital St. Paul, Alyssa Mgeni, 3, left, and her mom, Aubrey Rahn of St. Paul, tested out a new interactive fish fountain.

Photo: DAVID JOLES, Star Tribune

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Alyssa Mgeni cried. A lot.

“She’s seeing 10 doctors a day,” said her mother, Aubrey Rahn. “Every time a doctor comes in, she cries.”

But 3-year-old Alyssa, who was admitted to Children’s Hospital St. Paul last month for medical testing, was all smiles on the hospital’s new rooftop garden.

She pushed a button to activate the fountain, and giggled as water trickled over her hand and flowed into the colorful, fanciful basin.

“I use it as a reward,” Rahn said of the garden, to help Alyssa get through new hurdles. “I tell her, ‘Afterwards, you get to come up here and explore.’ ”

There are lots of places to explore at the CHA (Children’s Hospital Association) Storybook Garden, which covers about 6,000 square feet off the pediatric intensive care unit on the fourth floor.

In addition to the interactive fountain, there’s playground equipment for climbing, little cars for driving and even a “talking tube” where kids can speak into the ear of a deer statue, and the sound comes out of a giant sculpted pink flower.

There are plenty of real flowers, too — lush tropicals in big containers, and beds of succulents and colorful blooms growing in built-in planters on the fountain structure.

But the rooftop garden isn’t all play. It’s part of the healing process.

“A lot of hospitals now are realizing the importance of green space and gardens to help with healing,” said Dr. Bruce Bostrom, a hematologist and oncologist at Children’s. Spending time in a garden gives patients and their families a place to stretch their legs, get some fresh air, sunshine and Vitamin D, which many Minnesotans lack, he noted.

Just getting out of a clinical setting and into a park-like environment, even for a few minutes, can be therapeutic.

“The mind-body connection is huge,” Bostrom said. “When patients can relax and take off stress, it certainly improves healing and outcomes.”

There’s something about interacting with nature that is inherently therapeutic, said Leonard Gloeb, a master gardener and longtime volunteer with the hospital’s Little Green Friends program. Over two decades and 15,000 volunteer hours, he’s seen anxious, withdrawn young patients relax and open up after they’ve spent time potting and tending their own little seedlings.

One patient’s mother was inspired to become a master gardener after seeing the change in her daughter. “Before you came in, she wouldn’t talk to anyone,” the woman told Gloeb. “But after you left, she started talking to the nurses. It was just like a miracle.”

“I see little miracles every time I’m down here,” Gloeb said.

Playing at therapy

Children’s had a more conventional ground-floor garden before, but it was dug up to make room for an addition to the hospital. The new rooftop garden, funded by hospital donors, was designed with many therapeutic features, said Erin Keifenheim, communications consultant, Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota.

There’s a labyrinth for walking and meditation. The play structures are used not just to encourage kids to exercise, but also for rehabilitation. A spongey surface beneath the structures keeps kids from getting hurt if they fall off, and walking on different surfaces is also good for rehabilitation, Bostrom noted. “It’s much more exciting to walk in a beautiful garden than the halls of the hospital.”

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