Harris Health System Earns a Green Thumb’s Up for Patient Rehabilitation

Garfield Gibson Jr. could barely sit in his wheelchair, let alone stand for any period of time following his stroke. Thanks to ongoing rehabilitation care, including the use of a new horticultural therapy garden at Harris Health System’s Quentin Mease Hospital, that all changed.

The 58-year-old is now able to sit for most of his 30-45 minute therapy session, as well as stand for long stretches of time. The Quentin Mease Horticultural Therapy Garden is an effort made possible by the Harris County Hospital District Foundation and private donors. The 28- by 44-foot outdoor space is used by patients undergoing rehabilitation to cope with disabilities brought on by stroke, heart attacks, amputations and traumatic brain injuries.

According to the American Horticultural Therapy Association, horticultural therapy helps people learn new or regain skills lost like memory, cognitive thinking, task initiation, language skills and socialization. As patients perform garden upkeep like planting and watering, the activities help strengthen arms, legs and stomach muscles that help patients with sustained sitting, kneeling and standing.
“Seeing them stand, develop communication and social skills while enjoying the calming effects of gardening is pretty remarkable,” says Amy Parker, recreational therapist and coordinator of the program at Harris Health Quentin Mease. “Therapy only works when a person is really engaged. For some patients, gardening is the way to encourage effort and positive strides.”

Parker says the garden has helped patients improve fine motor skills in hands and fingers when they plant seeds, dig into dirt, pull weeds and pick their harvest. The activities also work to improve coordination, balance and endurance.

An avid gardener before his stroke, Gibson looks forward to Parker taking him to the therapy garden to see his growing tomato plants.

“I’m able to stand more and comprehend the tasks in front of me,” he says. “Gardening is fun for my soul and makes me feel good to know I’ve accomplished something good.”

Among the items being planted are tomatoes, broccoli, lettuce, carrots and spinach. While many of the hospitalized patients have access to the garden, on average, about 10 a day work the soil. Parker will sometimes coax patients outside to do some light chores in the garden like watering, weeding and other maintenance.

“I’m using this opportunity for therapy,” she says.

The fruits and vegetables harvested are used by other patients undergoing occupational therapy during cooking classes. The group regularly uses the ingredients to make salads and pasta sauces.

“It’s exciting to participate and gives you something to look forward to doing,” Gibson says. “A lot of days, you do your therapy and then go down to the garden to relax, and not even realize you’re still doing therapy.”

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