Gardening helps kidney patients in Colombian hospital

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Nutritionist Beatriz Millan, center right, of the Renal Dialysis Unit and her dialysis patients harvest lettuce and chard during an agro-therapy session at El Tunal Hospital in Bogota, Colombia, Monday, Dec. 14, 2020. Doctors at El Tunal are hoping that gardening can have a positive effect on kidney patients, who must visit the hospital three or four times a week to have their blood cleansed by dialysis machines. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

BOGOTA – For the past seven years, Lionel Cifuentes has been coming to Bogota’s El Tunal Hospital three times a week to get treatment for his dysfunctional kidneys. Now he has another reason to visit a place that has become so familiar to him it feels like a second home.

A small garden on the hospital’s grounds offers him a respite. On Monday, Cifuentes smiled as he watered plants and pulled up lettuces. He looked slightly tired as he raked the soil but said he was happy to try his hand at gardening.

“This makes me feel important. And it helps me to focus on something other than my disease,” said the 63-year-old dialysis patient. “It takes me back to the days when I felt like a useful person.”

Hospitals around the world have been using horticulture to treat mental health patients for decades. In the United States, horticulture therapy is also offered to patients who are living at hospitals while they recover from surgeries.

Now doctors at the El Tunal hospital in Colombia’s capital are hoping that gardening can have a positive effect on kidney patients, who must visit the hospital three or four times a week to have their blood cleansed by dialysis machines. Each visit takes at least three hours.

“Gardening can encourage them to do some kind of physical activity,” said Dr. Maria Beatriz Millan, the nutritionist in El Tunal’s renal ward, which treats about 200 patients with kidney disease. “We also hope that this activity will help patients feel more at home at the hospital” and get them to add the vegetables they grow into their diets.

El Tunal's gardening project began about a month ago, Millan said, after patients were given potted onion plants to take home. She said the plants were given to patients as a metaphor so they would remember to “take care of themselves while they took care of their plants.”

Many reacted positively to the activity and started to send the doctors photos of how their plants were growing at home. Doctors at the renal ward met with the hospital’s management and asked for a plot of land on which their patients could grow other types of plants. The proposal was quickly approved.

“We realized the garden can help the hospital meet its environmental goals,” said Sebastian Saveedra, the hospital's environmental management officer. “It also helps us give our waste products a second life.”

Pots at the garden are made from old containers that are no longer used. The enclosures for some plants are built with old cabinets.

Dr. Millan said 15 patients are currently participating in the gardening program, which could be extended to other public hospitals in Bogota next year.

She said that in the following months, patients will be given surveys to evaluate the effect it has on their mental and physical health.

Some of the patients’ relatives say they are already seeing changes.

“Being on dialysis is very tough, because it disrupts your lifestyle,” said Alejandra Robles, whose grandfather Luis Felipe Sánchez has been a patient at El Tunal for three years. Robles said her grandfather, who also has difficulty hearing, has enjoyed the gardening sessions because they give him an excuse to be outdoors and remind him of his youth, when he worked in a farm.

“This is a change in his routine that can hopefully help him improve his quality of life,” Robles said.