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Western Maryland Hospital patient grows happiness

Rolando Hernandez's garden has benefited many of the center's residents

September 29, 2010|By JANET HEIM
  • Rolando Hernandez, who is a quadriplegic, waters a garden on the grounds of the Western Maryland Hospital Center, where Hernandez has been a patient for 12 years. He shares the garden's bounty with the dietary department at the hospital, which means fresh produce for patients.
Ric Dugan, Staff Photographer

Rolando Hernandez faithfully tends his raised-bed gardens daily, not far from a busy stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in Hagerstown. Despite the hot, dry summer, Hernandez's crops are lush and green, thanks to his devotion and his ability to rally a team of volunteers to assist him.

The garden is at Western Maryland Hospital Center, where Hernandez has been a patient for 12 years. An accident left Hernandez, 39, a quadriplegic, with very limited use of his hands and wheelchair-bound.

Hernandez admits he never gardened before his accident. Through the Therapeutic Recreation Department at the long-term care hospital, he had the opportunity to give it a try, starting with peppers in pots on the balcony.

"It makes me happy," Hernandez said.

Now that he's discovered the joy of growing flowers and produce, Hernandez's work has expanded beyond the three raised beds he began with, said Denise Sigler, head of the Therapeutic Recreation Department.

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Not only does Hernandez benefit from growing and maintaining the garden, but so do his fellow patients. He shares the garden's bounty with the dietary department at the hospital, which means fresh produce for patients.

Hernandez's watermelon vines have yielded a dozen melons, the largest at 33 pounds. He thought one waiting to be picked was even bigger.

Other crops include tomatoes, cantaloupes, onions, zucchini and several kinds of peppers, including hot peppers. He also planted marigolds, Sigler said.

She said that what began as a request by Hernandez for garden space has grown into a hospital-wide project.

Her department purchased vegetable plants and tomato cages, and helps Hernandez plant, water and weed. Several patients and staff from maintenance, dietary and physical therapy also help, as do nursing assistants and other volunteers.

"He's been so proud of everything he's done. It's benefited so many residents," Sigler said.

Being wheelchair-bound doesn't stop Hernandez from getting out in the garden and watering. Family members who visit every other weekend from Delaware work in the garden with him and contributed vegetable plants and two fruit trees.

Heat and scarcity of rain were obstacles this summer, as were groundhogs. Master gardener and volunteer Will Godwin and staff member Mike Priday relocated at least 18 groundhogs that were munching on plants.

The garden is dotted with ceramic birds on stands that Hernandez painted to keep birds out of the garden.

"We're grateful he's taking care of it. He's out there every day checking on things," Godwin said.

Godwin said they found gardening instructions in Spanish, which made it easier to communicate with Hernandez, whose primary language is Spanish. There have also been some modifications made to gardening tools that make it easier for Hernandez and other patients to use them.

Godwin said he and the Master Gardeners group are willing to build more raised beds for Hernandez and the other patients who work in the garden, but finding the money to do so was the biggest issue.

The raised beds make it easier for patients to reach from their wheelchairs. They are spaced to allow two wheelchairs to be side-by-side, Godwin said.

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