Elden Johnny, a patient at Rehab Hospital of the Pacific, repots a plan in the greenhouse.

Plants can aid
patients’ rehabilitation

The Rehab Hospital
has a greenery and
plant sale Wednesday

Plant sale

Rehab Hospital of the Pacific plant sale to benefit its horticultural therapy program
What: Sale features native Hawaiian plants, yellow iris, desert rose, hibiscus, tuberose and more. Also, assorted gift baskets with plants and flowers and hand-painted pots will be for sale.
When: 3 to 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Rehab Hospital of the Pacific, 226 N. Kuakini St.
Call: 531-3511

There's A ZEN quality to working with plants. The repetitive motions of repotting -- till the soil mixture, scoop it with a hand spade, pour it in the pot -- have a hypnotizing effect. Simply watching a gardener long enough could produce this trancelike state.

For Elden Johnny, a patient at the Rehabilitation Hospital of the Pacific, working in a greenhouse -- brushed by gentle breezes while tending to iris, desert rose, tuberose and herbs -- not only helps the mind, but strengthens the body as well.

"It's like part of my therapy," he said, seated in his wheelchair, tapping the dirt with his spade and moving on to the next plant that assistant recreational therapist Lindsey Barnum has placed before him. Johnny usually has the radio on while he works out.

His handiwork will be among the greenery offered Wednesday at the hospital's plant sale, and he'll be there to assist with the fund-raiser to benefit its Horticultural Therapy Program. Included for sale will be gift baskets of plants and flowers, and terra-cotta pots hand-painted by patients, which all make great gifts for Mother's Day, coming up May 11, Barnum said.

THAT JOHNNY is able to volunteer his services is a breakthrough. When he was admitted into Rehab, he could not lift any part of his body, let alone a gardening tool. While working as a fisherman last summer, he fell head first into a boat hull, resulting in a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the chest down. With help from Rehab, he now has a row of repotted irises to his credit and will be leaving inpatient therapy when he finds a suitable place to live.

The hospital tapped into the healing aspect of nature with its program, one of many it provides to help patients overcome physical and emotional barriers of disability. The program has been in place since 1985, and a greenhouse in the parking lot is part of its rehabilitative facility.

Elden Johnny injured his spinal chord in a fall last year and now has only limited use of his arms and hands. A patient at Rehabilitation Hospital of the Pacific, he said he likes to go to the hospital's greenhouse and work with plants "to get away."

Barnum, a visiting intern from Chico State University who will be graduating in May, said the greenhouse, with adaptive facilities and tools, offers patients an alternative to the traditional workout. Every movement in nurturing plants, such as scooping up dirt and pressing it into a pot with hands or tools, is an exercise in physical therapy.

"They work on fine motor skills, attention to task and sequencing in a relaxed environment, and can reminisce about other things in their life," Burnham said. The work also gives patients an opportunity to focus on something outside their injuries or worries, and provides a sense of responsibility and accomplishment.

"Instead of being told to do this, do that, it allows them to feel in control of something. It makes them feel good to nurture something and watch it grow."

Those who aren't receptive to this form of therapy are encouraged using other motivational methods.

Melissa Applegate, Rehab's head recreation therapist, said every effort is made to accommodate those who aren't receptive to this form of therapy. If one likes the scent of an herb, therapists will suggest planting that, or perhaps growing their favorite vegetables or flowers. Patients are also allowed to take plants from the greenhouse into their room.

"You hope you spark an interest," said Applegate, who has been with the hospital three years. "Fortunately, the horticulture program did do that for Elden."

Originally from Micronesia, Johnny has no immediate family here but plans to stay in Hawaii, which is better equipped for those with disabilities.

Johnny said he wasn't interested in gardening before his accident, but now the greenhouse is one of his favorite places.

"I love it," he said.

And Applegate confirms this. She often finds him there, alone, radio blasting, in the company of seedlings.

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