At Mercy General Hospital, a garden of healing, soothing grace

04/19/2014 12:00 AM

04/18/2014 8:18 PM

Amid a project devoted to helping hearts, this spot slows the pulse.

That’s the idea. The soft sound of water soothes nerves. Shady redwoods offer space to relax amid calming earth-toned hues. Fragrant flowers and herbs stimulate the senses and let the mind wander.

“We tore out a parking lot and put in a paradise,” quipped Doris Frazier, paraphrasing songwriter Joni Mitchell. “We went from asphalt jungle to soothing oasis.”

Frazier, vice president of cardiovascular services at Mercy General Hospital, has seen this “healing garden” grow outside the newly opened Alex G. Spanos Heart and Vascular Center on the J Street campus of Mercy General Hospital. Originally, the long, narrow space was a physicians parking lot next to the original hospital, built in 1925.

Part of a massive makeover of the Mercy site, this transformation has been a slow process.

“Mr. Spanos gave the initial grant money, $15 million, in December 2001,” Frazier noted. “We wanted to make sure (the project) fit in with the neighborhood and community. That took a lot of consideration and communication.”

And time.

“I’ve been working on this project for 10 years,” said landscape architect Jennifer Styduhar of HLA Group. “It’s nice to see it get to fruition.”

With a final price tag of about $170 million, the new 123,000-square-foot heart center officially opened Monday as doctors and staff moved into new quarters. The center offers four state-of-the-art cardio surgery operating rooms, 20 beds in its new cardiac intensive-care unit, 71 private patient rooms and much more, including a new chapel, a neighborhood park and the healing garden.

The garden and park are named for Walter and Agnes Anderson, both pharmacists and longtime Mercy supporters. A widow, Agnes Anderson attended the park’s dedication last week.

Reflecting its east Sacramento neighborhood’s Craftsman feel, the Spanos Center features many hand-made touches, including more than 220 pieces of artwork inspired primarily by nature.

“We not only have a healing garden, but we integrated garden and natural healing elements throughout (the center),” Frazier said. “We felt it was really important to bring natural elements throughout the hospital setting; not just for patients, but families and staff. It calms and lowers blood pressure.”

Metal artist Keith Peschel, a Sacramento native, sculpted 15-foot metal trees that wrap around the columns in the center’s main lobby. Individually glazed with green enamel, the “elm leaves” sparkle as they catch light from banks of windows. Beneath the columns, a river motif flows through the tile floor.

The trees and river evoke “Like a Tree by Running Water: The Story of Mary Baptist Russell, California’s First Sister of Mercy,” Mary Katherine Doyle’s book on the founding mother of Sacramento’s Sisters of Mercy.

“That story is just so special to us,” Frazier said. “It connects us back to our roots. We all get goosebumps when we think about it. ”

Mother Mary Baptist traveled up the river from San Francisco to Sacramento in 1857 to treat the poor. Her Sisters of Mercy were Sacramento’s first visiting nurses.

“The legacy of the Sisters of Mercy and their mission to provide health care where the need is the greatest will continue at (this center),” said Mercy General President Edmundo Castañeda. “The new chapel, healing garden and inspirational artwork will offer spiritual and holistic wellness, and peace and comfort to our patients.”

That tree-and-river theme is echoed outdoors amid the redwoods, which were planted more than 60 years ago, their massive branches now shading benches and chairs instead of cars.

Flowing with symbolism, a river of recycled water runs through this new healing garden, too. Visually and metaphorically, the running water ties together location and history to this special place in a city built on rivers.

“My favorite part is the creek,” Styduhar said against a steady backdrop of gurgling water. “I love the sound of it.”

Although this man-made creek flows courtesy of recirculating pumps, its banks are real river rock, hand-picked by Styduhar from a quarry near Nevada City. Naturally stream-polished stones line the bottom. The paving sparkles with Ione gold gravel.

“The important thing about healing gardens is they’re a place to de-stress,” Styduhar said. “People always think about the patients, but these gardens are also important for staff. Their work is so stressful.”

Said Frazier, “In hospitals, you get into fight-or-flight modes; everybody’s stressed out. This place rejuvenates. It’s good for patients, family and staff.

“This garden definitely calms the mind,” she added, breathing in the scent of redwoods mixed with gardenias. “You can exhale.”

A curved deck of ipé wood traces the banks of the meandering stream, providing room to relax next to the sound of water lapping over stones. “Ipé is very low-maintenance and sustainable,” said Styduhar, noting that the whole garden was designed with those two objectives in mind.

A mix of mostly low-water plants, the garden palette features graceful carex, cape rush, dwarf nandina and papyrus. Gingko, coral-barked Japanese maples and white-flowered star magnolias serve as focal points. Lime-green coral bells sparkle in the shade. Lamb’s ears and rosemary invite visitors to touch and sniff.

“It stimulates the senses rather than create more stressful thoughts, and that’s important in a healing garden,” Styduhar said. “It takes your mind off other things.”

Tucked into one bed are sculptured succulents such as echeveria and aeonium.

“I’m a succulent fanatic,” Styduhar said. “I love them. They look like little Muppet plants.”

What’s missing are any neon-bright colors – vibrant reds, oranges or pinks. Instead, the colors feel cool and soothing like the water in the stream.

“Water is very important – the rhythm and sound are relaxing – but so is color,” Styduhar said. “Tones are important; there are no loud bursts of red. Instead, we stuck to soothing browns, greens and golds.”

A triangular space next to the healing garden is still under construction, destined to become a physicians memorial garden in remembrance of doctors past.

The work planned for the Mercy campus, noted Frazier, will keep the garden staff busy for more years to come. But now they also have a place to escape for a little while, and breathe.

“I love coming out here,” said Frazier, while standing on a bridge over the stream bed. “I feel more relaxed already.”

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