August 1, 2012
Story and photos by Elizabeth Rose

Horticulture can be an effective therapy in the battle to reclaim life after a brain injury.

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Emily Neustrom and patients at ABIC (top image) cut zinnias from their garden and fill a vase made from a water bottle

As 10 Acadiana Brain Injury Center residents pass around a beekeeper’s hat, Emily Neustrom explains how bees produce honey and how it’s harvested by blowing smoke into the hive, which, in effect, inebriates the bees and allows the beekeeper to collect the honey without being stung. These 10 men have varying mental and physical restrictions but joke with each other like brothers and are enthralled in Neustrom’s beekeeping lesson. ABIC feels like camp, and these two hours are devoted to horticulture therapy, one of the many activities on the residents’ schedules.

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 Neustrom shows the program’s participants the gear used to collect honey.

After the lesson, the men follow Neustrom out to the garden and check the various raised beds’ progress (or lack thereof) — the tomatillo plant is flowering but not producing; the cucumbers are just coming in; the herb garden is in need of weeding; and the zinnias are exploding. Neustrom fashions makeshift vases from the bottoms of plastic bottles, and the men take turns clipping the stems, stripping the leaves and placing the flowers in shades ranging from periwinkle to canary in the vases. “You look pretty picking flowers!” they tease each other. Some of them water starter plants in the greenhouse and check for eggs in the chicken coop, which they built in the woodshop there. They all convene to plant trays of broccoli, cauliflower and two types of cabbage seeds; later, when the surprise rainstorm forces them to retreat to the ranch, they calculate how long it will be before the seeds sprout, and how long after that will they be able to harvest the veggies. This doesn’t feel like therapy — it’s actually really fun.

When recovering from a brain injury, a patient’s rehabilitation is often a long and laborious process that ranges from relearning basic skills to adapting to newfound inabilities. For some, however, gardening can be an effective combatant in the battle to reclaim their lives. Neustrom is a certified horticultural therapist and has worked with HIV/AIDS patients, Riker’s Island prisoners, adults with physical and mental challenges and children with cerebral palsy. She says caring for a garden is a way for her ABIC clients to begin caretaking. “For many, it’s physical exercise — they’re using fine and gross motor skills and engaging mental function. The brain can regenerate and make connections that increase awareness and function. With caretaking, you can see the fruits of your labor.” With the fruits of their labor, they have created a “microbusiness,” where they sell the harvested plants and bouquets to the staff. In between seasons, they save the seeds from flowers and herbs to make seed packets to sell.

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Neustrom explains how long it will take for the plants to produce vegetables

The American Horticultural Therapy Association organizes the benefits of horticulture therapy into cognitive, psychological, social and physical categories. For cognition, horticultural therapy is believed to improve concentration, stimulate memory and improve attention span; for psychology, it increases self-esteem, reduces stress, improves mood and increases feelings of calm and stability; for social interactions, it improves social integration and interaction and group cohesiveness; and for physicality, it improves fine and gross motor skills and eye-hand coordination along with promoting overall physical health. Horticultural therapy has deep roots and is believed to have started in Mesopotamia in 2000 (though the function was inspiration, not therapy). In 1812, Dr. Benjamin Rush cited therapeutic gardening as one of the hallmarks of patients’ recovery from “mania,” and U.S. WWII veterans were beneficiaries of horticultural therapy in government hospitals.

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Trays of broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage were planted recently at the center.

When Rodney Champagne suffered his brain injury on June 28, 2010, he was a volunteer firefighter — a captain — and was thrown in the air by a fire hose when it ruptured during a routine inspection. He landed on the left side of his head on concrete and suffered eight fractures, three broken bones in his ear, a shoulder separation and a right subdural hematoma — his brain bounced hard enough in his skull to warrant a plate in the top right of his skull, marked by a V-shaped scar that interrupts his hair growth. His recovery, however, cannot be described as anything less than miraculous — in one year, he relearned how to walk, talk, swallow and live with his limitations, including hearing damage that requires he wear a hearing aid.

Though Champagne, 31, does not remember a lot of his recovery, he says family tells him all he said after he regained consciousness was, “I just want to go bush hog,” which is what he was doing before the fire hose inspection. He returned to work at Stuart and Stevenson managing diesel mechanics on Sept. 10, 2010. Because of his newfound physical restrictions, he could no longer work as a diesel mechanic, which he loved, and had to find “something that would satisfy the need to do something with my hands,” he says. He owned a lawn service from when he was 12 to 18, and said he now has a “newfound passion in landscaping.”

While watching an episode of Undercover Boss, Champagne discovered the Dwyer Group out of Waco, which owns GroundsGuys, a lawncare franchise. At the time, Champagne was looking for a job in lawn and garden at a hardware store but could not find a full-time position, so he decided on GroundsGuys.

Five months ago, he opened the franchise and works on weekends, maintaining his position at Stuart and Stevenson. He says there are challenges in owning his Duson-based business, mostly concerning his memory problems. “My brain is a bunch of sticky notes,” he laughs, saying he has to carry a book of plant names and proper care as well as print out his route from house to house in order to remember customers’ names. Champagne now has a vegetable garden at his home where his 5-year-old daughter waters the plants; his wife is attending school to obtain a horticulture degree. “I can still operate on a professional level and get my hands dirty on a daily basis,” says Champagne. “I purchase the equipment that makes my job easy — it’s still somewhat mechanical, but it’s all therapeutic to me.”

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