“Everything you and I take for granted can be gone in an instant,” says Dr. Matthew Gibson. “A traumatic event can immediately take away our ability to exercise, drive to work and wash the dishes.”
Gibson is the president and CEO of Siskin Hospital, a physical rehabilitation facility in Chattanooga. As he describes the devastating circumstances that bring patients to Siskin’s downtown campus or one of its five outpatient clinics, he praises the physical, occupational and speech therapists who coax the human body into healing itself.
“Whether an individual has suffered a brain or a spinal cord injury, or a stroke or an amputation, this is a special place that does marvelous things. Patients learn to walk again every week.”
“And hold things again. And pick things up again. And swallow again,” adds Teresa Dinger, vice president of patient access and marketing at Siskin. “You don’t think about rehabilitation until you need it. You’re 40 years old, you’re in a devastating car accident and you wonder, ‘What do I do now?’ You come to Siskin. We see miracles happen every day.”
These miracles cost money, of course. This reality was not lost on Gibson, Dinger or the rest of Siskin’s leadership during the pandemic, when the hospital added 11 beds to meet increased demand, launched a young stroke program and offered the first post-COVID program in Chattanooga.
Nor has it been lost on the hospital’s staff as it’s upgraded the patient rooms, hung more art on the walls and improved the food the cafeteria sells.
“We’re refining our patient experience,” Gibson says. “The care has been exemplary for decades and we’re trying to keep it that way.”
Despite the cost of these and other upgrades, Siskin has not conducted a capital campaign in more than 15 years. But that’s changing with the hospital’s newest project – a verdant cluster of five outdoor healing gardens.
While gardens of all varieties are appealing and beneficial to people, healing gardens are generally green spaces on the grounds of hospitals and other health care facilities designed to improve patient outcomes, explains an article by the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing.
“These gardens provide a place of refuge and promote healing in patients, families and staff,” reads the article, which cites leading landscape architects Clare Cooper Marcus and Marni Barnes. “Any environment can promote healing, but gardens are particularly able to do so because humans are hard-wired to find nature engrossing and soothing.”
Therapeutic gardens can be found in hospitals across the U.S., with notable examples including Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego, Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and Rochester General Hospital in New York.
Now Siskin is bringing the concept to Chattanooga in an effort to enhance its services, says Gibson.
“We don’t open people for surgery, we push the body to heal itself, and leveraging nature aligns perfectly with what we do. Our gardens will inspire and motivate our patients and distract them from the life-changing event that occurred. And it will rejuvenate their loved ones, who will be able to visit several gardens to make a phone call, read a book or get some air.”
Gibson says the gardens will transform Siskin’s main campus, which is tucked into a crowded cluster of health care facilities in downtown Chattanooga.
A leisure park that winds through bushy patches of colorful foliage and circles a pavilion where inhabitants will be able to take cover from the elements will replace a simple walkway, some benches and a basketball net.
A smaller version of this primary garden will bring an idle chunk of rectangular grass elsewhere on the campus to verdant life. And a rooftop garden will turn an unadorned patio outside Siskin’s fitness center into a shaded retreat.
“We don’t have 50,000 acres at our disposal, so everywhere you turn, there will be an opportunity for a patient or a loved one to spend time in a garden,” Gibson says. “Our patients are here for an average of two weeks, so we want them and their loved ones to have multiple gardens to visit.”
To design the gardens, Siskin has turned to everyone from a nationally renowned hospital designer, to a firm that helped to shape Chattanooga’s Riverfront, to the therapists that staff its clinics.
Bruce Komiske, the volunteer project manager for the gardens, has extensive experience designing hospitals in the U.S. and around the world, says Gibson, including Lurie Children’s Hospital, which is part of the concrete and glass jungle that makes up Chicago’s skyline.
“He inserted an outdoor healing garden halfway up the building,” Gibson marvels. “Picture The Westin Chattanooga with one of its floors cut out and an open-air garden in its place. His work is innovative.”
Following a request for proposals, Siskin tapped national firm Barge Design Solutions – which contributed to the local Riverfront 20 years ago – for sketching out the landscape.
Chattanooga-based architecture firm Tinker Ma will tackle the pavilion that will anchor the leisure park. The firm’s local projects have included The Edwin Hotel, Songbirds and The Flying Squirrel.
Dinger says she’s impressed with the “thoughtful suggestions” Siskin’s therapists have contributed to the project.
“The leisure park will feature different textured surfaces. When you’re in a wheelchair, you have to be able to navigate curves and gravel, and our therapists will be able to train our patients to cross them.”
The various parks will also include items designed to help patients develop fine motor skills, such as raised planters, Dinger reports.
In total, Siskin is seeking $3.5 million for the project. Barge Design Solutions arrived at the sum, which includes the funds needed to build the gardens as well as an annual endowment to keep them blooming.
Gibson says the fiscal challenges of operating as an independent hospital would have made a project of this scale difficult.
“As a nonprofit hospital, we’re able to invest any margin we make into this institution. But there’s a reason there are only a few independent hospitals in this country: it’s not easy.”
Gibson says one other factor motivated Siskin to reach out to public for help: the hospital wants the local community to feel like it’s a part of the work being done.
One Chattanoogan who’s lending his expertise to the project is Mike Costello, a business broker and retired CPA with extensive local connections. Siskin has charged him with chairing the committee that will raise the green needed to raise the green spaces.
Costello says the project appeals to him on a personal basis as the parent of a child who was born disabled and lived 21 years.
“During my son’s lifetime, my late wife, Nancy, and I were in and out of hospitals with him. I would’ve given anything for access to gardens like these.
“When I’d become stressed in a hospital, the only place I could go was down the hallway. There was no escape. So, the idea of being able to take a long walk is a refreshing idea.”
Innovation has been a hallmark of Siskin since philanthropists Garrison and Mose Siskin – sons of Siskin Steel founder Robert Siskin – first conceived the notion of a local rehabilitation center after Garrison suffered a life-threatening injury while boarding a train in the 1940s.
“As the story goes, the platform fell and crushed his leg,” Dinger begins. “His surgeons told him they’d have to amputate his leg, but he vowed to God that he’d help those in need if He spared his leg. The next morning, the blood clot that had threatened his life was gone.”
Garrison and Mose founded the Siskin Foundation in 1950 and opened a rehabilitation center that offered outpatient services in 1959. Siskin Hospital carried the brothers’ legacy forward when it opened in 1990.
“(Garrison and Mose) weren’t hospital executives or physicians, but they had a vision for something they believed would benefit this community,” says Gibson. “And now we’ve built a hospital that didn’t exist on dirt they didn’t own.”
This hospital, Gibson continues, is the largest physical rehabilitation facility in Tennessee, according to the number of discharges and beds. When people ask him why Siskin isn’t located in Nashville, Knoxville or Memphis, he replies, “Siskin has always been here, and this community is a gem.”
To date, the Chattanooga community has donated $1.4 million toward Siskin’s healing gardens as Costello and his committee have chinked away at their connections, using a proverbial pickaxe to unearth the diamonds needed to fund the project.
Currently, Siskin intends to use the funds it’s accumulated to break ground on the leisure park this fall. If all goes well, Gibson says, the first patient will step, or wheel, onto the path next April.
In the meantime, Siskin is planning to host a fundraiser at Manker Patten Tennis Club in July. The event will honor Grady Paschal Williams, a civic leader and businessman who led fundraising campaigns for many local philanthropic organizations before dying in March 2022.
“Nature is another name for health,” wrote Henry David Thoreau at the end of “Wild Fruits.” Siskin’s leaders share the naturalist’s belief in the benefits of spending time in natural surroundings and believe the people of Chattanooga will join them on their journey to create an oasis of healing in the heart of the city.
“We’re as passionate about our mission as we’ve ever been,” says Dinger, “and we hope the community will help us take this important step forward.”