Paediatrics and Gardening

Why am I writing about gardening in a Paediatric or medical blog you may ask? For me, gardening and nurturing my own crops is inextricably linked with my life as a Paediatrician. In summer months when I get home in daylight, it is not long after a cup of tea that you will find me wandering round inspecting the days growing, stealing some strawberries from my patch and watering anything that’s wilting. It is a complete and utter switch off for me; it brings me back to the ground, quite literally, and gives me a sense of purpose. Gardening reminds me that we play a very small part in the World overall and reminds me that the World continues to churn with or without us. This may seem a bit fatalist but it means that whatever has happened at work that day, however important it may have seemed at the time, pales into insignificance. It means that I shoulder less of a burden about stuff and absolves me of some of the responsibility I might otherwise feel. I can just focus on something totally different. In winter months, I love packing away all my stuff and tidying the garden up for another year. My mind at this time focusses on gardening projects for the year ahead in a similar way to how we chose new projects when we start new training rotations. It gives me a great time to reflect on what’s been and look forward to what’s ahead and it mirrors quite closely what happens in my work life.

It gives me great pleasure and pride to see my children, friends and family enjoy the shared space of my garden. The feeling of self-esteem this gives me sends me on my merry way to work feeling like I can conquer any emergency that comes flying my way.

When there have been emotional times at work, there have been times when all I have gone and done is some weeding. The monotonous rhythm of this action takes my mind off all the horrendous events that may have occurred but at the same time allows me time to process them. I remember at times thinking that even though a young life has been lost, the World has to continue and will continue; and it is helpful at times to remember that seasons will come and go regardless. It is a helpful reminder that time will pass inevitably and will enable healing to occur both for myself and for those families. I think we are lucky with the seasonality in the UK in this respect as it moves us on.

Not all gardeners advocate not wearing gloves, but some do, and one notable TV gardener is Monty Don who is never seen wearing a pair of gloves. Monty Don has made public his battles with depression and how gardening has got him out of the episodes. Personally, I rarely wear gloves too, not to brave depression, but because I think there is something cathartic about feeling the warmth of the soil run through your hands. It is an antithesis to the sterile world of work where hand-washing is needed every 5 minutes and I love that I can do something that is the complete opposite at home. I love that the same hands that can place a tiny cannula into a neonate, can gently pull a plug plant out of its slot, or dig potatoes. However, I do tend to hide my secret of being a gardener at work by scrubbing the creases of my hands of all evidence!! 

Following on from the thought that gardening can help to improve your mood and keep your body in balance, there is now research to say that actually getting your hands dirty increases your serotonin levels. It has been found that contact with soil itself and a specific soil bacteria, Mycobacterium vaccae, triggers serotonin release in the brain.

Additionally, other studies have shown that there is release of dopamine in the brain when we harvest products from our gardens. This response is postulated to happen because we have done over 200,000 years of hunter gathering and when doing so the reward centre in the brain would be triggered by the release of the dopamine into feeling a mild euphoria. This dopamine release and the accompanying pleasure can also be triggered by the mere sight or smell of fruit, in addition to  the actual harvesting of crops!

I am not advocating that we all pick up a spade and become as obsessed as I am, but what I am really urging is that every Paediatrician finds something that they can achieve and enjoy outside work. If you follow my advice, trust me, you will be a better Paediatrician for it.

Dr Ellie Glenday