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Horticultural therapy gives patients new life

Master Gardener Kay Loibl assists stroke patient Sara Hedahl while they work in the garden beds at St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute. Special to  (SUSAN MULVIHILL Special to / The Spokesman-Review)
Master Gardener Kay Loibl assists stroke patient Sara Hedahl while they work in the garden beds at St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute. Special to (SUSAN MULVIHILL Special to / The Spokesman-Review)

St. Luke’s, Master Gardeners collaborate on program

Two weeks ago, Sara Hedahl suffered a stroke. The Libby, Mont., mother and grandmother was frightened and heartbroken as she watched herself deteriorate physically.

She was quickly transferred to St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute for the specialized care she would need while recovering from the stroke.

“When I came here in the ambulance,” says this avid gardener, “I saw the flowers and they lifted my spirits.”

The flowers are part of St. Luke’s horticultural therapy program. Begun about six years ago, the program is a collaboration between St. Luke’s recreational therapists and WSU Spokane County Master Gardeners.

Therapists Candice Belcourt, Helda Fuchs and Jen Hutchison look at each patient’s physical function and leisure interests during their initial evaluation to determine if they would benefit from horticultural therapy.

Each Tuesday, they bring patients who are recovering from strokes, traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury and other neurological challenges outside to the gardens.

There are raised beds of varying heights that can be worked on from a standing position and from wheelchairs. A large vegetable garden filled with squash plants, tomatoes, amaranth, sunflowers and pole beans is also a site for therapeutic activities.

Master Gardener Kay Loibl, who helped implement the program at St. Luke’s, has rheumatoid arthritis and degenerative disc disease in her back. She saw a need for the Master Gardener program to get involved in adaptive gardening.

Loibl and her core group – Dorene Harter, Rose Griess, Shirley Broyles and Kay Meyer – work with St. Luke’s patients once a week during the summer months.

“We help them with basic garden chores,” Loibl explains. “In the winter, we do garden-related crafts inside with the patients once a month.”

Patient Linda Hallock is recovering from a multiple sclerosis exacerbation and pneumonia. She enjoys coming outside to participate in the program.

“I used to be a gardener and grew roses from the cuttings I took,” the retired fish and wildlife biologist says. “It would be nice to have some raised beds like these at home to work in.”

Says therapist Belcourt: “When the patients come outside and see the gardens, they just light up. They don’t even realize that what they’re doing is therapy.”

While the patients plant, water and tidy up the garden beds, the therapists work on their balance, attention span, use of proper body mechanics and awareness of their surroundings. In the process, the patients’ confidence levels and interpersonal skills increase.

What helps patients like Hedahl and Hallock garden are adaptive tools that have long extension handles, special padded grips or angled handles that provide better leverage from a seated position.

While these types of tools are carried by most local garden centers, they aren’t just for patients dealing with serious illnesses or injuries. They work well for gardeners who have arthritis, muscle weakness or any number of orthopedic problems as well.

Belcourt enjoys seeing patients benefit from the horticultural therapy program.

“I see a drastic improvement in their mood,” she says. “Just seeing patients doing something they thought they’d never be able to do again is so rewarding.”

“It’s such a worthwhile program,” adds Loibl. “I come out of there feeling like I’ve maybe brightened someone’s day.

“You just see people shine when you bring them outside. We enjoy showing them that they can still garden.”

Susan Mulvihill can be reached via e-mail at

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