by Emily H. Brechting, Ph.D.
When working with a therapist or counselor, the sense of connection is vital. With one ALS patient, it was clear that our mutual love for gardening would be that connecting point.
Last spring, I began working with an ALS patient—let's call them Sam. With in-person gatherings cancelled due to COVID, we began meeting online. Sam was grappling with the realities of an ALS diagnosis. They were experiencing anger, frustration, and disbelief while continually adjusting to the relentless progression of the disease. Sam was struggling and decided it was time for us to work together.
In one of our initial meetings, Sam lamented their inability to spend time outdoors due to mobility challenges and COVID restrictions at their care facility. Sam shared about their decades-long passion for horticulture. Sam deeply missed the feel of dirt on their hands, the smell of freshly turned earth, and the sheer pleasure of cultivation.
At that same time, my family and I were partnering with friends in an ambitious project for a mega garden. An open field became a 50x150 foot plot of tilled land. Raised beds with drip irrigation soon followed. Raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, and asparagus were ordered and planted. Tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, zucchini, broccoli, peppers, beets, rhubarb, peas, lettuce, kohlrabi, brussels sprouts...this was no ordinary garden. It was a quarantine enterprise!
I shared with Sam about this family project and they were enchanted. Soon, it became part of our routine. At the start of our meetings, I’d provide a quick update on the garden’s progress and let Sam see garden photographs by sharing my screen. Sam was delighted. In fact, when I forgot to take new pictures before a meeting, Sam let me know that this should not happen again. After a few minutes of garden talk, we’d transition to "the work” of our time together where Sam shared struggles, practiced coping skills, and processed their concerns. And then to close our meetings, Sam would make suggestions about vegetable varieties to consider, strategies for dealing with garden pests, or flowers they thought would make a nice addition to our efforts. Through the common language of gardening, a connection was made.
Sam’s hands never touched the soil of our quarantine garden but their fingerprints were all over our bountiful harvest.