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 Over two decades and 15,000 volunteer hours, he’s seen anxious, withdrawn young patients relax and open up after they’ve spent time potting and tending their own little seedlings.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.”
The fountain was designed with sweet little details, such as hidden beetles, that make great targets in a game of “I Spy.” (The design of the fountain also limits pooling water, which can harbor germs.) And the fanciful speaking tube can be used in speech therapy, Keifenheim said.
The horticultural elements of the garden, which are tended by the hospital’s maintenance staff, were designed and installed by Bachman’s, which had great leeway with plant selection, according to Tara Yost, senior sales consultant.
“They had already purchased the pots,” she said. “Basically, they told us, ‘Make this look beautiful.’ ”
The rooftop location dictated many of the plant choices, Yost said. “The rooftop gets full sun — hot, baking sun. Heat reflects off the building and the rubber floor. We needed plants that could tolerate that, that were both heat-tolerant and drought-tolerant.”
She chose tropicals and succulents — “things that would naturally grow in those conditions” — but that were safe for children. That meant no cactus, because the spines could injure kids at play. Nothing poisonous. And nothing that would attract bees and butterflies. “They’re fun for kids but could be dangerous for kids with allergies,” Yost said.
Ben and Jackie Brorson of Woodville, Wis., are looking forward to being in the garden the next time they visit Children’s with their son Brayden, 18 months, who is undergoing treatment for a tumor on his kidney.
“There’s not a lot to do in the NICU,” said Jackie.
When Brayden is hospitalized, she and her husband rarely leave the facility, so having a garden getaway on-site will be a day-brightener — and a place for their 3-year-old daughter to play while her little brother receives treatment.
“Whenever he gets sick, she gets sent to Children’s, too,” Jackie said. “Anything outdoors, she’s happy. It’s really peaceful up there — all the colors, hearing the kids laugh. It will bring a lot of happiness.”