Beyond These Walls:  Expanding the Patient Experience


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Cleaning a Zen garden is a soothing activity. The calming and meditative practice might be appropriate for a patient dealing with an illness, with one caveat: raking the gravel in the garden can be physically demanding, more so if one’s energy is diminished by illness. What if the patient is physically unable to visit the garden?

The Arts in Medicine program (AIM) works with patients who are at the nadir of their illness, unable to leave the hospital, or in some cases, their hospital room.  Tina Mullen, director of AIM, and Martin McKellar, the Asian Garden Specialist and volunteer at  the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art, have developed a program that splits the garden activity into two parts: the patient develops the meditative design for the gravel in the Harn’s Asian Rock Garden and McKellar rakes the design into the gravel.

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 5.40.39 PMFirst, AIM’s trained artist in residence identify a receptive patient in the University of Florida Health Shands Hospital. The artist and patient discuss the concept of the garden, and where appropriate, read about traditional Zen gardens. The culmination of the patient’s reflection on the garden is the creation of a design to be raked into the garden’s gravel.

There is one difficulty to overcome. The garden is dotted with boulders, ground level lighting and seating. The wooden garden rake is 30 inches wide. Will the patient develop a configuration on paper that can be duplicated in the garden with the 30 inches wide rake? The solution was to make a map to the scale of the garden in a size that fit on the patient’s over-bed table, and to create a multi-leaded pencil that is the equivalent of 30 inches wide in relationship to the map.

Second, the completed design is forwarded to McKellar. He rakes the configuration into the gravel.

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 5.41.11 PMThird , a Skype session is organized between the artist and the patient in the hospital room, and the Harn museum staff, including McKellar, in the garden on the other end. Museum staff with an iPad walk through the garden, stopping to talk about specific features with the patient. A surprising commonality was revealed with the first patient. The patient found the pencil rake to be awkward and difficult, just as McKellar found the heavy, 30 inch wooden rake to be an awkward raking tool. They understood each other.

The program gives the patient and the gardener the opportunity to consider new and creative ideas, to solve problems, and to engage in a satisfying exchange. The trial period for the program will be one year, during which four patients will participate. After the patient’s configuration is put into the garden, it is maintained for four to eight weeks. This time period dictates the speed with which the program can accommodate the next interested patient.

Questions or suggestions are welcome. They can be posted at this site or you are welcome to directly contact Martin McKellar at

Martin McKellar is a retired Ph.D. from the University of Florida International Center. He started raking the dry garden at the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art as a volunteer in August of 2012. He is currently planning his eighth trip to Japan.


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