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Military medical center uses nature for healing

The Institute for Integrative Health
The Green Road at the Walter Reed National Military Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

The Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, is home to The Green Road Project, a natural healing environment for injured service members and their families at Naval Support Activity Bethesda, where the center is located.

Dr. Fred Foote, a retired U.S. Navy physician, neurologist, professor and project administrator for The Green Road Project, joined “Take Care” to discuss the project and the major difference it’s made in treating soldiers with brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder.

According to the project’s website, the Institute for Integrative Health and its partners created the Green Road -- “a woodland garden where service members and their families will find respite amid forest and wildlife beside a tranquil stream.”

As Foote describes it, the Green Road includes a ravine that goes down to a natural stream full of fish and other wildlife, along with two pavilions on site and wheel-chair-accessible paths throughout the environment. Foote said the entire space was designed to use nature as a healing force for soldiers.

“We’re seeing all kinds of evidence that both diseases and general health and community health are healed by exposure to nature and green space,” he said. “Both for psychiatric disease and physical disease, community green space is so important. We all know a park makes our spirits rise, but not everyone knows the mathematics of this.”

European studies have shown that decreasing green spaces in communities by 1% has health effects equivalent to a year of aging on the people who live there, Foote said, and increasing green spaces in communities can significantly improve the health and wellbeing of people who live there. Foote said he sees this as the new direction for medicine.

“The whole idea of getting stressed people of all kinds into nature is the future for medicine,” he said.

While he stressed that those who suffer from mental illness should seek therapy and psychological help, they should also seek out time in the outdoors as supplementary healing. Foote said The Green Road Project has proven to help heal the soldiers who go there, and their experience can help show how any stressed population can benefit from enhancement of nature.

Measuring that success is a bit more difficult than seeing it, Foote said.

“It’s a debate why this stuff works so well,” he said. "We know it does work well, but we’re still trying to figure out why.”

Foote considers nature healing part of whole-body medicine, which is different from traditional medicine, like pills and surgery, that tends to treat one organ at a time.

“Nature and art and these other therapies that we put in do not just treat one organ; they treat the whole body at once, so we call this whole-body medicine, and the medicine of the future is keep the pills and surgery, that’s fine, but also add into the organ system medicine the whole-body medicine,” he said.

Because nature is considered whole-body, testing the results at Walter Reed relies on the study of things like genes, language and stress systems, which can all be indicators of whole-body health, Foote said.

“These are three of the areas that we’re pursuing at Walter Reed to develop a battery of whole-body lab tests that can make this totally scientific in everyone’s eyes,” he said. “We should have that process completed in five to 10 years.”

There’s also anecdotal evidence of the success of Green Road, Foote said. A few Navy SEALs visited the facility and gave it raving reviews.

“They were in love with the healing powers of the garden and felt that this was a tremendous feeling of safety and reassurance and a decrease in stress for them,” he said. “These Navy SEALs said in their interview that they considered the exposure to nature we’re doing mission-critical -- the top category of what’s important to help our soldiers do their duties.”

It’s not just the healing gardens at work at Walter Reed, Foote said, but other holistic medicine treatments like healing hospital rooms, integration of care programs, healing through art, nature and spirituality and nutrition and exercise programs.

"Our whole-body medicine is all part of a general rediscovery of sacred experience in our society, and this is going to affect the way we live in the future, the way we do economies, the way that we do communities"

Before The Green Road Project came to fruition, Foote said there was considerable skepticism on its worth and effectiveness, making the process last seven long years. However, Foote found that once he explained the cause to commanding officers, most were immediately on board.

“I’d be lying if I said the military was the easiest place to do this stuff, but I’ve pretty much been surprised by how quickly people get it once they can see it in action and get the feeling of it,” he said.

Foote said this is because many service members are used to spending time in nature and know its healing effects. And the benefits that nature and other whole-body treatments provide can only help.

“One of the striking things about whole-body in general is it never harms you,” he said. “The overall harm rate of all these therapies we’re discussing has been studied, and it’s less than 1% of one half of 1% of people who are harmed.”

As far as the future of the project, Foote said he’s expecting a lot of advancement in the next 10 years. Walter Reed acts as the flagship, and its research can help spread similar treatments to facilities across the nation.

“We’re the pythons swallowing the jungle pig here,” Foote said. “The next 10 years are going to be for development and spread. … A top priority for now is keep things going for Walter Reed but also spread it to all the other military hospitals that are across the nature.”

In addition, Foote said there needs to be advancement in ways to measure whole-body health.

“We know that the whole-body therapies work, but we need to develop lab tests that measure the whole body at once and not just one organ system,” he said. “The biggest single thing we want in next 10 years is for people to join us in the use of invest genetics, the analysis of language and stress system analysis to prove scientifically the benefits of this type of therapy.”

Once the model spreads to other military facilities, Foote said it can spread outside of military uses, providing nature and whole-body benefits to people of all sorts of professions. He said he looks forward to a society that values caring for people and things to make them last.

“There’s a big-picture side of this,” he said. “Our whole-body medicine is all part of a general rediscovery of sacred experience in our society, and this is going to affect the way we live in the future, the way we do economies, the way that we do communities.”