Finding Sanctuary In City of Hope
I first became aware of City of Hope over a decade ago, when I accompanied a dear friend there in what would become a journey that spanned many visits. Hospitals have always made me queasy, but I knew immediately when I arrived at City of Hope– which feels more like a giant park than a hospital– that things here were going to be different.
From its welcoming outdoor spaces to its elegant rose garden, the on-site integration of native environment was uniquely uplifting. It’s not easy to make a hospital dedicated to life-threatening diseases a positive experience, but City of Hope did– largely through their emphasis on gardens, nature, and the healing powers of the two combined. I visited City of Hope many times over the years following my initial visit, and as I did, I realized how comforting it was to have spaces dedicated to something other than being in a hospital.
City of Hope began humbly in 1913 as two canvas cottages (one for patients, one for caregivers), when tuberculosis was sweeping through the United States. Just south of Los Angeles National Forest with the San Gabriel Mountains in the distance, the dry climate where City of Hope is located was thought to help in the healing of tuberculosis patients.
This early connection between land and body laid the groundwork for City of Hope’s now famous “bench-to-bedside” approach to medicine. During the next hundred years, the small outpost became an internationally-acclaimed medical center at the forefront of research, always guided by the unofficial motto: “There is no profit in curing the body if, in the process, we destroy the soul.”
There were many occasions during my visits to City of Hope when we would take a moment go outside and sit on a bench, just to enjoy a coffee and breath. From our perch we watched relatives of patients laying offerings at the feet of various religious statues that are scattered in the garden, hoping for miracles, as most at City of Hope do. Just the fact that there was an option to do so seemed unbelievably important. I believed, like us, that everyone sitting on all those other benches and strolling through the rose garden were looking for the same thing– a certain comfort that can only be found in nature.
City of Hope’s commitment to integrated medicine has meant not only developing new methods of prevention, diagnosis, and treatment, it has also meant investing in gardens and nature as a valuable part of healing. “Nature has a unique way of healing us from the inside out,” says Matthew Loscalzo, the Executive Director of the hospital’s Department of Supportive Care Medicine. “Regardless of our ever-changing situations, the connection with our earth, dressed in spring colors, connects our resiliency and sense of hope. In a deeply spiritual way, the luscious grounds at City of Hope link us all together in our core with the cycles of life and inspire us to a greater connection, courage, and compassion.”
“Nature has a unique way of healing us from the inside out. Regardless of our ever-changing situations, the connection with our earth, dressed in spring colors, triggers our resiliency and sense of hope.”
City of Hope’s mindset reflects a growing body of research: gardens and nature help seriously ill people recover from grueling treatment. I found this to be true even in my own anecdotal experience as a visitor. The architecture of the space pulls your attention away from the situation at hand– just long enough to allow your mind to reset and your energy to return.
There was a period of time when I was unable to think about City of Hope without feeling inconsolably sad. It did, however, make me want to further explore the relationship between doctors, patients, and the gardens. This past January when I visited with a friend, we spent the morning walking the wide open grounds, which are “designed to encourage emotional, mental and physical healing”.
It was particularly poignant driving into the parklike setting, with the American Flag flying high above the hospital, and seeing for the first time the deeply moving Wishing tree installation, above. A new native garden had also just been installed, joining other oases like the Rose Garden (home to sixty four different varieties of rose) and a Japanese Garden that hosts tai chi classes. As we walked the grounds, we saw a number of people outside enjoying the space– a family quietly picnicking by the koi pond, two doctors under the Magnolia trees having a meeting.
Inside the City of Hope’s buildings, you still feel the garden– washing away the antiseptic, helping to dispel the sadness that always comes with hospitals. City of Hope is a serious place, but one where people still smile. One elderly man (we were told) comes every day– not because he has someone to visit or because he is receiving care, but because the gardens are so calming and beautiful.
It was intense– almost overwhelming– to be at this hospital again, even as an unattached visitor. But it wasn’t a sad feeling. It was a feeling of excitement and gratitude to the people who have taken such time and effort with the space. There is no place like City of Hope– and it certainly lives up to its name.