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Syracuse veterans find comfort working with nature

Ellen Abbott
Veterans work with plants as part of a horticulture therapy program through the Syracuse VA Medical Center.

A rooftop garden at the top of the Syracuse Veterans Affairs Medical Center's new spinal injury wing does more than provide a nice view for visitors. It’s the site of a horticulture therapy program that the VA is hoping could spread to other hospitals in the system.

Bruce Nowakowski, 66, of Pennelville, has been in the residential unit of the VA for about a year now. He says he's got a dream.  

Credit Ellen Abbott / WRVO
Bruce Nowakowski is one of the veterans that is taking part in the Syracuse VA Medical Center's horticulture therapy program.

"Right now I’m trying to work on growing a giant pumpkin,” Nowakoski said.

He knows where he’s going to get the seeds, and expects to plant them in January.

"Because you’re talking about a 2,000 pound pumpkin, and you don’t grow that overnight,” he explains.

Nowakowski is a big booster of the horticulture therapy program that lets patients gets their hands dirty planting vegetables, flowers, herbs and houseplants.

“Just the peace and quiet, working with Mother Nature, planting seeds, growing flowers and taking care of them,” Nowakowski said.
The program is a joint collaboration between Syracuse VA Recreation Therapists and researchers from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. SUNY ESF professor Lee Newman says it’s all about helping them relax and rehab at the same time.

“Getting them in touch with nature, with the soil, digging with the soil with their hands, and getting excited about that,” Newman said.

Newman says she’s seen how taking care of plants has made a difference in patients' lives.

Credit Ellen Abbott / WRVO
A rooftop garden features fruits, vegetables and houseplants that veterans can take care of.

“One of the local nurseries donated a lot of strawberry plants to us," Newman explained. "And just watching the guys out there, every day, they’d go out and check to see if any strawberries were ripe, and they’d pick them and bring them in, and share them with the colleagues who couldn’t get out of bed and get up there. And it just is truly amazing and inspiring watching this interaction of the vets with plants and with nature.”

VA rehab psychologist Allan Landes says it goes beyond reconnecting with nature. He’s found that when these patients grow living things, it lets them see their struggles in a different way.

“Particularly around here, folks are kind of steeped in the downside," Landes said. "They’re worried about death and dying. They’re worried about injury and loss. Being able to see things that are getting better, that they’re doing something in the therapy gym that’s making their bodies better, this is a nice external metaphor for that.”

While the experts at the VA see benefit to this kind of plant therapy, Newman admits there’s not a lot of scientific research to back it up.  

“And that’s one of the things we’re hoping to do with this program, is not only be this outreach and engagement program for the vets, but do some good science and prove that this actually improves patient outlook," Newmand said. "And if you improve their outlook, you improve their outcome.”

But the horticulture therapy program has been very successful, according to Landes.

‘There’s something about working with living things, that I think is palliative for folks," Landes said. "It has a restorative quality for them.”

He says they’ll look at how patients view the program subjectively, but that’s not all.

Credit Ellen Abbott / WRVO
Veterans at the Syracuse VA Medical Center paint pumpkins.

"We’re hoping to get data that says that this is a type of activity that they’re more likely to stick with when they go home, or they’re more likely to engage in while they’re here, so it would eventually become a preferred therapy modality for folks who want to do it," Landes explained.

On a bright October day, patients sit on the roof admiring the last blooms of flowers and painting pumpkins. Watching this, Newman can’t help believe horticultural therapy has real value.

“The problem is there isn’t the hard science to back it up," she said. "And we want to get that so we can to to other veterans hospitals and other facilities and say, this works, get the guys out growing. Get them out there playing in the mud, get them back in touch with nature. It’s going to make a difference for them.”