The Fisher House is a place of respite, where guests form supportive communities during difficult times. Part of a system of “comfort homes” throughout the United States and Europe, these welcoming lodging facilities offer a peaceful oasis for families with a veteran receiving care at a VA hospital. The homes, built by the Fisher House Foundation and gifted to the government to maintain, are sited near both VA and Department of Defense hospitals.
The Puget Sound Fisher House opened its doors to veteran and military families in 2008. By necessity, it was built in the parking lot of Seattle’s VA hospital. Though fenced, the original landscape, which consisted of lawns and perimeter plantings, was open to cars and pedestrians on all sides.
Programs at the house, paid for with donations through the Friends of VA Puget Sound Fisher House, focus on providing “care for the caregivers” and alleviating their stress. In 2009, the house staff identified a need for a garden. They began by installing three raised vegetable beds. The gardens offered activity and fresh produce for guests and softened the landscape. But Pat Norikane Logerwell, who served on the board of the Friends, saw an opportunity. “The house was beautiful, but the idea of a Healing Garden was to extend the solace and respite of the house to the outdoor space and make the house feel more like a home. We wanted to give guests more exterior privacy, a place to contemplate, refresh, and release after they’d been at the hospital all day.” Logerwell, herself an avid gardener, reached out to Daniel Winterbottom, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington.
Winterbottom has a keen interest in therapeutic gardens and has taken teams of design students around the world to create restorative, healing landscapes on hospital campuses and in war-torn countries. The Fisher House project appealed to Winterbottom for a variety of reasons, “First and foremost the people involved. That makes or breaks a project.” He also saw it as a remarkable creative challenge. “The existing landscape was unusable because of poor drainage. The grass wasn’t ADA accessible. There was no reason to investigate the landscape, frankly, because there was nothing of interest in it. [The space] was an open canvas to implement theory we had about healing spaces while providing a service to the residents and the facility.”
The participatory design process began with focus groups. Winterbottom’s design students met with staff of the Fisher House and the VA hospital, as well as Fisher House guests to imagine what the garden should be. Students worked in groups to translate those visions into preliminary designs. An advisory group of landscape architects and garden designers reviewed the presentations with stakeholders and the best elements of each plan were synthesized into a final design. Once approved, the students—with the help of volunteers and in-kind donations—took on the task of regrading, building, and planting the new landscape. Phase I of the Healing Garden was dedicated in 2010; Phase II was designed and completed in June 2013.
The gardens now embrace the Fisher House on all sides, with dense plantings and structures that create privacy. The vegetable gardens have been expanded. There are private outdoor rooms for quiet contemplation and a corner with space and play structures for children. The gravel path that meanders through the garden is ADA-compliant and wide enough for two wheelchairs. The path measures one-tenth of a mile, providing space for exercise. In time, an allee of trees will shield the east side of the garden from the parking lot.
People staying at Fisher House come from all over the country and the world. They are displaced from their homes during a time of medical crisis and subject to a range of emotions and stress. “While staying in the house, a person could receive the worst news of their life or the best. They need to have a place to celebrate or to grieve, to feel both anchored and liberated,” Winterbottom notes. “These are often not urban people. They may not be ‘group’ people—but here they are living in a group setting. Medical trauma and displacement is exhausting. Their ability to focus on critical issues is compromised. A range of rooms and spaces in a therapeutic garden is important because the needs of the users are so varied.”
The garden offers options for exercise, conversation, and contemplation. It has been the site of memorial services, marriage celebrations, and performances. The design of the private spaces allows multiple users to be in the garden, yet still be alone if they wish.
Amy Wagenfeld, assistant professor of occupational therapy at Western Michigan University, served on the advisory committee for Phase II. “I’ve always been profoundly interested in how nature improves the lives of people of all ages and abilities. The Fisher House project never fails to move me because so much can be gained by the experience of being here in the garden. I feel embraced and enveloped within the space; I don’t feel like I’m even at the VA.”
It is a sentiment echoed time and again by guests of Fisher House who record comments and reflections in a journal kept in a bench in the garden. The inclusiveness of the design means a great deal to many visiting patients, as well. As one veteran said, “You can’t believe how grateful I was to be able to stroll alongside my wife in my wheelchair and not have to say, ‘Oh, I can’t go there.’”
Both Winterbottom and Wagenfeld appreciated the Fisher House staff and the Friends, who saw the installation as more than a beautification project. “They recognized and embraced the value of nature and that means this garden is forever going to be here to support the veterans and their wonderful families,” Wagenfeld said.
The guests of Fisher House create a community of support. Logerwell observes how the gardens have become a part of that dynamic, particularly the edible gardens; guests feel a sense of ownership as they harvest vegetables and plan meals. Her favorite story is of a little girl who bounded up to her one day, “Would you like to see my garden?” she said before skipping away, the hood of her sweatshirt full of green beans. Logerwell also notes that the volunteers, both those who participated in the installation and those who come to work parties to maintain the gardens, feel a similar sense of ownership. “The gardens have enhanced the sense of community.”
The Puget Sound Fisher House healing gardens beautifully fulfill their intended purpose: to soothe the soul and refresh the spirit. The house is a haven for the families who stay there, and the gardens extend that haven to the outdoors, giving guests a place to rest, restore, and heal in nature.
For more information about Fisher House, including locating a house in your region, visit www.fisherhouse.org. Find out how you can support the Healing Garden at VA Puget Sound Fisher House at www.fisherhousevaps.org.