Abby Jaroslaw in the garden with a patient
Einstein Untold: Unsung Heroes and Unknown Stories

Horticultural Therapist Cultivates Seeds of Recovery

By on 03/20/2023

One in an ongoing series

When Abby Jaroslow’s daughter spent two years in a Manhattan rehab hospital, the two of them found refuge in the garden of the hospital, which had one of the first therapeutic horticultural programs in the country.

“When she was in the hospital, we always spent a lot of time in that garden,” Jaroslow recalls of that stressful time when her daughter was 5 years old. “It was a lovely environment for her to be out of her hospital room.”

Jaroslow’s daughter is now 37. And Jaroslow has come to spend every workday in a different garden of her own, at a different rehab hospital. 

Jaroslow is a horticultural therapist at MossRehab, now part of Jefferson Health. She uses the serene garden environment to treat patients who have brain, spinal cord or other orthopedic or neurological injuries.

The impact can be dramatic.

Happy to Be in a Garden

“A speech therapist will tell me a patient spoke for the first time in a week,” Jaroslow says. “Or a physical therapist will tell me that a patient was able to stand up longer in the garden than before.”

“A lot of it has to do with being in the presence of plants. It’s gratifying to see how it makes people light up,” Jaroslow says.

She recalls a patient with aphasia – a language disorder often caused by brain damage – who looked up through the garden skylight and got teary.

“She put her hand over her heart and I said, ‘Are you feeling happy or sad?’ And she indicated it was making her feel happy. She felt like she was close to God.”

When her daughter was first hospitalized, Jaroslow was working in Manhattan as a preservation architect on old buildings and old gardens, including Central Park. Then another crisis upended her life even further: a financial recession cost her her job.

Out of the turmoil came a new life. Jaroslow’s background and experience with her daughter propelled her towards a job as a horticultural therapist. She came to MossRehab nine years ago.

“I’m able to use working with plants and in the garden as a modality to engage patients in activities that work towards the same goals as they’re working on in all their other physical or cognitive therapies,” Jaroslow says.

Many Facets of Plant Therapy

And horticultural therapy has the advantage of not feeling like therapy at all, though it’s as goal oriented as traditional rehabilitation therapy. 

Take the activity of transplanting a plant from one pot to another. Mixing soil and gradually increasing the weight of a watering can help patients work on upper extremity strength and hand coordination. It also can improve cognitive skills.

“There are a number of steps involved,” Jaroslow says. “A patient has to follow sequential instructions, so they’re working on their cognitive skills, which might include memory and auditory processing.

“Even being able to focus on the activity and not be ruminating on their illness and not be worrying adds to the therapy,” she says.

“They get the smell of the soil and are outside of the hospital setting and don’t realize they’re engaging in therapy.”

When patients are discharged, they’re able to take home the plants they created in horticultural therapy.

“I’ve had many patients come back years later and tell me they still have their plant.” Jaroslow says. “They say they love having it, and as the plant grows, they get stronger. That’s their metaphor.”

So while it may have been hardship that propelled Jaroslow to MossRehab – her daughter’s illness and losing her job – she couldn’t be happier with the outcome.

“I love this more than anything I’ve ever done before,” she says.

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