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Commentary: MUSC's campus arboretum offers respite, shows 'good things happen'

The Medical University South Carolina is the oldest medical school in the South and has devoted itself to people and buildings during the majority of its history, as well it should have. However, in 2010, MUSC created the campus arboretum to transform the campus into a garden-like setting, using the beauty of nature to assist in the institutional missions of learning and healing. The ongoing work of the arboretum has been particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The ICU never closes. Machines are all around," said Dr. Stephanie Whitener, an ICU anesthesiology intensive care physician. "Families become exhausted, anxious and unable to process information, such that they too become patients needing our care. This augments our stress.

"Working in the COVID unit, donned in full PPE for four to five hours at a time, but then able to step outside in the arboretum green spaces, showed that all is not darkness. Good things happen."

Jerry Reves

Jerry Reves

Sarah Stender

Sarah Stender

Likewise, the Emergency Department is always an intense place to work, and with the added burden of COVID-19 in 2020 it has been extremely stressful. Dr. Diann Krywko, director of Wellness, Health and Resilience for the Emergency Department, said: “I take on projects that might improve any of the items in my title. I received an email from one of our nurses saying that it is difficult to take breaks in a small space filled with interruptions that does not allow for social distancing during the pandemic. It is important to exit the space that creates the stress. I took a walk into the parking lot and thought: Let's transform this concrete, dingy space, a reminder of the so ever present COVID. Home Depot donated artificial turf to cover the concrete. Lowe's provided picnic tables creating an outside, relaxing garden with a picnic area and lights. The arboretum staff helped make the space green, adjacent to a small bench site complete with statuary.”

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Noula Cummins, an Emergency Department nurse, said of the project: "The stress of caring for one patient is carried to the next patient" in the face of high patient volume intensified by the COVID pandemic. “When a patient is taken to the ED, it is the worst day of his or her life. Staff need a place to find respite from this reality. The new breakroom and adjacent garden are an oasis. I am extremely grateful that someone has taken the time to care, to appreciate what we do. This green space is a place to relax, enjoy and catch our breath."

In 2011, Clemson students under the leadership of Ray Huff, director of the Clemson Design Center in Charleston, created a bold master plan for the arboretum board that was pedestrian-friendly and mindful of flood mitigation. "The goal was to create a city of Charleston Greenway that happens to be in the medical district," he said, "to be part of Charleston, our city of gardens, a place where even a neighboring family would want to bring a child in a stroller."

Robin Smith, grounds department manager, has overseen the planting of more than 400 trees and countless flowering plants during the past 10 years. "To walk out of any building and hear the wind chimes is calming ... we are in a downtown garden ... the campus now brings respite in the shade where one can meander, wander, sit, play, let nature do its thing."

The initial mission of the arboretum in 2010 was to transform a landscape-beleaguered campus into a place of optimal healing and learning by creating a soothing setting that invigorates, inspires and teaches through nature. Though much remains to be done, especially in the larger hospital district over the coming decades, COVID and its unprecedented stresses have proven that the work begun 10 years ago is vitally important. For a virtual visit to the arboretum, go to web.musc.edu/resources/health-and-wellness/arboretum.

Dr. Jerry Reves is dean emeritus of the MUSC College of Medicine and chair of the MUSC Arboretum Advisory Board. Dr. Sarah Stender is a retired pediatrician, alumna of the MUSC College of Medicine and member of the Arboretum Advisory Board.

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