James brought me a caterpillar the other day. Never having met him before, I was impressed with this 10 year old’s gumption in bringing an insect on a milkweed leaf, unsolicited, to the office of the executive vice president of the hospital. I was even more impressed when he started to talk. James, who has spina bifida, has spent a lot of time at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. But he’s pretty unimpressed with our clinics and operating rooms. What gets him going is the park-like space across the street on the County Grounds. Once the home of the Milwaukee County School of Agriculture and Domestic Economy, Asylum for the Insane, TB sanitorium, and poor house, among other things, the County Grounds is now largely occupied by the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center, UW-Milwaukee Innovation Campus, a golf course, and stormwater detention ponds. But pockets of the grounds remain undeveloped, including the Monarch Butterfly Trail, where each year thousands of these beautiful and delicate creatures gather on their southward fall migration to Mexico.
James shared with me how he loves to visit the trail when he comes to the hospital. It is a calming, healing place where he feels connected to the wider world. It gives him energy. As James’ mother said, “the County Grounds has become a refuge for our family. Having a peaceful, natural place to escape to so easily has had a tremendous impact on the mental and physical well-being of everyone in our family.” While the miracles of modern medicine have allowed James to walk, it is the miracle of nature that allows his spirit to soar. James met with me to ask my support in developing a nature trail on the part of the county grounds nearest the hospital. He described how kids like him would have a place to get away from the lights and sounds and smells of the hospital, and enjoy the trees, birds, and bugs, maybe even deer and coyotes!
There is a growing awareness of the power of nature to heal. Children in particular seem to have a need for some “wildness” for their well-being. Many hospitals have installed gardens: we have our own lovely Noel Family Healing Garden, for which many of our families are tremendously grateful. Other hospitals have gone further, investing in more extensive adjacent nature trails. Mid Coast Hospital in Maine, for example, describes its 3300 feet of paths as a place of exercise and contemplation for patients and visitors (and staff).
James’ story rang true to me. This week my dear niece, Finley Broaddus, succumbed to her brief and ultimately unsuccessful fight against liver cancer at age 18. Always a passionate advocate for nature, she established Finley’s Green Leap Forward Fund, allowing family and friends to contribute to preserving and healing the planet in her memory. A month ago, she left the hospital for the first time after six weeks. When she went outside, she just sat in the grass and closed her eyes. My mother-in-law described how she could almost see the Earth’s energy rise into Finley’s frail body, reanimating her and elevating her spirits.
I’m imagining a Wellness Trail, meandering through the woods and wetlands just a few hundred feet from the hospitals, and now easily reached by a pedestrian bridge. A place where kids like James and Finley could wander, soaking up the healing energy of the natural world to complement the various therapies we provide. And maybe seeing a hawk, or a deer, or a caterpillar.