Hitting the Wellness Trail

CHW LogoJames 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.

13 Responses to Hitting the Wellness Trail

  1. Thank you for such an eloquent, moving vote for nature’s healing power in a hospital. What an incredibly sad loss of your niece, but thank you for posting her fund’s site and the power of her legacy. My dream is to see more and more nature inside and around hospitals to keep that reciprocal feedback loop alive for all of us. http://www.healingoutdoors.org

  2. Marlene melzer says:

    Dear Marc

    I am so sorry to read about your niece, Finley’s death. I believe that some of our best healing, restoration, and thinking occurs when we are out in our beautiful, natural world. A path of nature on the County campus would benefit all. How do we make it happen?


    • There is a group thinking about this, the same people who put in the Monarch Trail. I’m looking at how to facilitate getting them in front of the right people at MRMC.

  3. jodiegewohn says:

    Dear Marc, Thank you so much for sharing such a beautiful post. I’m from Australia, and have not heard of hospitals incorporating nature therapy before stumbling upon your blog posting. Very inspiring. Do you know how I may learn more about the different hospitals that have implemented this or a similar concept in the US?
    Thank you in advance.

    • A couple of places to start. The Healthier Hospital Initiative coalition (www.healthierhospitals.org) looks broadly at the impact of the health care industry on the environment, but several of their sponsoring organizations are focused on the kind of concepts I discussed. For children specifically, The Children and Nature Network (www.childrenandnature.org) has a number of resources about children’s health and nature.

    • Erin W says:

      Hi Jodie – I read your comment and while Marc may have a better answer, I have found this database to be the most comprehensive list of healing gardens in medical facilities. http://www.healinglandscapes.org/healthcare-gardens/

  4. scientiste says:

    Reblogged this on Mental Flowers and commented:
    Great perspective about the importance of environment as part of the healing process, from the perspective of a hospital administrator.

  5. Kirsten Beyer says:

    Marc. I would love to talk with you about these ideas. I am working with the Urban Ecology Center here in Milwaukee on some very similar ideas. I am faculty in the IHS and also go to UUCW.

  6. Jane Kegel says:

    Hello Marc,
    Thank you for your heartfelt blog on the best kept secret in Milwaukee County, the urban wilderness of the County Grounds. I have worked at Children’s Hospital for 35 years, and have been walking the wooded trails and the grassy plains for half that time. I have seen numerous species of animals over the years including a family of Great Horned Owls a few years back and a group of secretive Long Eared Owls 2 winters ago. I’m also one of Barb Agnew’s “lieutenants” helping out with the preservation of the Monarch Trail. It is imperative we keep what little wilderness we have left intact. I can’t think of anything better than allowing the patients and their families access to this urban wilderness. The footprint is in place. The trails are well travelled. It just needs to be tidied up a bit. Thank you for having this vision.

  7. Marc,
    As the designer of the Noel Family Healing Garden, I agree with your thoughts and observations. The connection between the human and nature is fascinating and has informed my landscape architectural practice. An excellent book about this connection should consider the book, Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-being by Ester M. Steinberg, MD. I appreciate that you are also an administrator and see the value.

  8. Paul L. Alt says:

    Dr. Gorelick,

    I worked with Esther Sternberg MD at what is now Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on a master plan called the Green Road Project. The master plan was along a 7/10 of a mile stream bed between the hospital and medical school it consisted of an ADA pathway, exersize stations, benches, bathroom, pavilions. Part of the project will be measuring healing efficacy in space. As architects collaborating with a landscape architect, clinicians and researchers consideration must be given to the elements offering shelter, focus, rest and respite. Unfortunately many of the so called healing gardens serve no purpose other then having your lunch.

  9. […] odors, or a combination) are responsible for the effect.  It certainly boosts the case for a wellness trail on the medical […]

  10. LuAnne Washburn says:

    To those of you who found interest in Dr. Gorelick’s blog “Starting with the Curious”, a story came out a couple years ago called “Hitting the Wellness Trail” https://startingwithcurious.com/2014/06/06/hitting-the-wellness-trail/ and there is now an update on the land to which he referred to as the Sanctuary Woods:

    Wauwatosa Master Plan Would Bulldoze Last Corner of County Grounds – Milwaukee Magazine
    Must “Sanctuary Woods” be sacrificed for retail and residential development?


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