For most of us, gardening is a sometime hobby, something we take up passionately every May, tire of by August (or even July) and then pine for desperately again in March when it seems like winter will never end.
But for others the simple act of mucking around in the dirt can be a salvation of sorts, a coping mechanism that gets them through the most trying of times — a cancer diagnosis, the rage of a messy divorce, a suddenly empty nest.
It can also be a way to give thanks and help others cope, as lifelong gardener Bob Herridge knows firsthand. In fact, the Armonk resident used gardening to show his deep appreciation for the heartfelt care he received at Burke Rehabilitation Hospital in White Plains.
Here, he shares how gardening helped him give back to Burke and how his efforts have helped the thousands of patients Burke admits each year. Now all those patients get an automatic payback with a chance to see hundreds of new plants each day and, best of all, they get a chance to do a little gardening themselves.
Road to recovery
After 15 years of pain and discomfort from two bum knees, Herridge finally decided to have replacement surgery in 2007. Most people have their knees done one at a time, but Herridge was impatient to get on with it so he had them done simultaneously two years ago at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan.
After the surgery, he was sent to the Burke for a week or so of in-hospital recovery and rehab and another three months of outpatient treatment. His knees are like new again and he’s just crazy about the care he got at Burke, which treats 3,500 inpatients a year along with nearly 5,000 outpatients.
“They did so much for me,” Herridge says about Burke’s nurses and therapists. “They treated me like I was the only one there. It just overwhelmed me.”
Herridge wanted to do something to pay them back for the one-on-one treatment he received. Why not use his gardening skills to help other patients and the staff he’d grown to like and so admire?
These days, he shows up at Burke every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 7 a.m., after an hour workout in the facility’s adult fitness gym, to single-handedly run the patients’ greenhouse and tend to the hundreds of plants in the 24-by-40-foot glass house.
He’s logged some 1,500 hours as a volunteer in the last couple of years, says Gail Cornacchia, the manager of volunteer services. “There’s nothing he wouldn’t do for a patient. He’s just a great guy — very down to earth, full of energy.”
Herridge has a very clear and direct way of saying why he puts in all those hours: “You have to give back.”
“I got a whole new life because of them.”
Herridge, 70, retired seven years ago from the Halstead Quinn oil company in Mount Kisco, where he worked as a dispatcher and driver. Now he loves being a volunteer gardener at Burke, and it’s helped fill his postretirement days.
Herridge remembers when he first met Cornacchia and the greenhouse, one day toward the end of his rehab at Burke. “We hopped in a wheelchair and she brought me down here — it was a disaster area.”
The louvered windows wouldn’t open and the floor was a wet, slippery mix of wooden boards and cracked concrete, certainly not suitable for patients in wheelchairs.
Herridge, with an OK from Burke of course, decided to shut down the whole operation and rebuild the interior of the greenhouse from scratch.
Now the floor is solid, smooth concrete and all of the side ventilation windows can be easily opened to let in air and extra light on warm days. All of the benches and planting beds sit at just the right height for a would-be gardener in a wheelchair, and Herridge has added a layer of pea gravel under all the pots to keep everything dry.
As part of their occupational therapy, patients come to the greenhouse to learn about gardening and perhaps pot up a few plants to take back to their rooms. Herridge also likes to put out how-to gardening books and magazines for patients to read.
They want to know what Herridge is growing, and he enjoys showing off his many citrus trees, begonias, snake plants, cactuses, geraniums and petunias.
“You see the patients — they’re looking a bit down — and then as soon as they come through that greenhouse door they get a big smile on their face,” he says. “As soon as they see the flowers and the plants and everything, it lifts them right up.”
Now that he has the greenhouse under control, Herridge has begun to extend his gardening reach to other parts of the hospital. Many of the hallways and nurses’ stations are now decorated with big pots of asparagus fern, spider plant, begonia and Wandering Jew, all made from cuttings and seeds from a few mother plants Herridge keeps in the greenhouse.
“Bob has made Burke beautiful,” says Toni Calabrese Boelsen, Burke’s director of community relations and development.
For the holidays, Herridge makes wreaths at home and hangs them in many of the hospital’s windows. He also grows about 50 hanging baskets for the annual employee and patient plant sale at the hospital in early May.
Most recently, he created a charming and colorful outdoor garden and sitting area for the staff, right next to the back entrance and employee parking lot.
“That’s typical of Bob,” Cornacchia says. “He’s just one of those people who goes above and beyond what he should be doing.”