Healthcare & Therapeutic Garden Design Interview Series: Joel Siebentritt, Director of the Loran Smith Center for Cancer Support, part of Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center, Athens, GA
The need for cancer support and patient services was first envisioned by a very special group of nurses, caregivers, and cancer survivors in the mid- to late 1990s. They used their understanding of not only medicine but also complementary therapies to begin planning a physical facility to serve these needs. At first, the Loran Smith Center for Cancer Support was conceived mainly as a building but soon the planning grew into a more holistic idea of not only a structure but a building surrounded by nature and naturalistic gardens. Since its inception, the Center has grown from an idea and an unused piece of property on the edge of the hospital campus into a vital center of support for patients, caregivers, and family member. The healing garden is an important and integral part of the Center’s mission and is designed to serve the hospital, its caregivers, patients and their families, as well as the broader Athens community.
Joel Siebentritt, the Center’s director, is a passionate supporter of the garden and driving force behind getting the garden built, funded, and perhaps most importantly, programmed for important uses and functions. He loves nature and every day can see from his office window people who are using, enjoying, and benefiting from their interactions there. The following is an interview with Joel that delves more deeply into his connections to the garden and the garden’s history and purpose.
The following interview with Joel Siebentritt, Director of the Loran Smith Center for Cancer Support, was conducted by Marguerite Koepke, RLA, ASLA, professor emeritus, College of Environment + Design, University of Georgia.
Marguerike Koepke (MK) – Joel, describe your field and the nature of your work at Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center.
Joel Siebentritt (JS) – I am a social worker who for the past five years has managed Cancer Support Services for Piedmont Athens Regional Health System in Northeast Georgia. My responsibilities include developing and maintaining programs that offer quality of life benefits for anyone affected by cancer in our region. All that takes place is located at the Loran Smith Center for Cancer Support on the hospital’s campus. The Loran Smith Center is situated adjacent to a 3-acre green space that is evolving quite intentionally into a therapeutic garden to serve patients, caregivers, health system employees, and the surrounding neighborhood.
MK – What got you into this field of work?
JS – My career path began in 1990 administering a non-profit shelter for homeless families. Since then I’ve taken some interesting turns gathering experience in various social work settings including schools, physician offices, and private practice. I was first introduced to the idea of therapeutic gardens when I came to Piedmont Athens Regional and immersed myself in the field of integrative medicine, which combines the best of conventional medical care with other therapeutic modalities with proven benefit to patients. At the time, the Loran Smith Center had been offering a menu of complementary therapies for 10 years, assisting patients through treatment and beyond. Those therapies are still offered today and include individual and family counseling, Reiki, Yoga, Tai Chi, Mindfulness Meditation, Guided Imagery, Expressive Arts, and a host of educational offerings. In the meantime, I met Marguerite Koepke, Professor Emeritus at the University of Georgia and a specialist in therapeutic gardens. Thus began my formal education in this field! Marguerite, however, had been instrumental in laying the groundwork for a therapeutic natural space at the Loran Smith Center a decade before, when the garden was first dedicated.
MK – What do you feel makes this garden special from other types of gardens or designs?
JS – The focus of our work at the Loran Smith Center begins with seeing the person in front of us. Treating holistically by definition means seeing the whole person in every dimension: mind, body, spirit, and assuming that the lines between those dimensions are blurred and conceptual only. Regardless of what program we are offering, our goal is healing in some way—healing that does not depend on the patient being physically cured of their disease. Working with Marguerite Koepke, a landscape architect, and reading the research background and literature she provided confirmed the physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits of spaces that are planned with healing in mind. The idea of a therapeutic garden then, grew naturally out of the Center’s mission.
MK – Joel, what is your passion—what drives you to do this work?
JS – There is a great need in our society to humanize medical care. For example, there very few primary care physicians remaining who get to know and care for three generations of a family in a small practice and who naturally understand important familial and environmental factors impacting that family system. That is partially a reflection of a medical system that structures itself around reimbursement instead of health. This necessarily results in the erosion of the physician-patient relationship, and propels the delivery of medical services that are increasingly prescription and procedure oriented. This is in stark contrast to medical care which by its very nature is relationship based. The care we offer at the Center brings the idea of relationship back into medicine. Every program we offer is designed to create meaningful interactions that can bring our clients back into relationship with themselves, their community, and the world. You can imagine then, how important it is to have a well-planned therapeutic garden available to our people. There is no substitute for the natural world to teach us the healing benefits of healthy relationships. My passion lies in promoting healing relationships throughout our delivery of integrative health care.
MK – How do you incorporate research into your design process?
JS – It helps that our landscape architect consultant, Professor Koepke, has a seat on the committee that reviews all design decisions related to our therapeutic garden. She serves as a conduit for research that is relevant to any aspect of garden development under consideration, from installing a labyrinth to positioning a playscape. Additionally, any public presentation highlighting Athens Regional Medical Center’s therapeutic garden includes a clear description of the therapeutic goals to which we strive. The importance of this cannot be overstated; as part of a medical system which operates on the principles of science to conduct its work, that same scientific foundation must be the underpinning for the development of a healing environment.
MK – What are some of the design challenges you have encountered and how did you address them?
JS – I’m not a landscape architect so I come to this question quite naïve to the complexities of garden design. However, my role leading our garden initiative has brought me to a greater appreciation of contractors and project managers who can successfully bring all the pieces of a large design project together. I work closely with engineers, donors, landscapers, nurses, volunteers, patients, and development officers, among others, to make sure a project is accomplished well. Communication across these various disciplines is essential to ensure all have an adequate understanding of the design purpose and know how their piece of the project relates to each of the others. That is work that requires time, energy, and much patience but one you know is well worth the effort once the design is complete and the project is finished.
Joel Siebentritt, Director
Loran Smith Center for Cancer Care
Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center
For more information, see the 2014 interview with Joel Siebentritt on The Field.