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A Pandemic Hobby: How Plants Saved Me from the Chaos

by VC Patel 6 months ago in wellness · updated 6 months ago
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by VC Patel

If you nurture it, it will thrive. Nurture your interests for a healthy outlook. Photo credit VCPatel

A Healthcare Worker’s Navigation of Covid-19 and Avoiding a Breaking Point

In 2020, the world changed for everyone due to Covid-19.

Let’s be honest, we mostly had no idea that some strange sounding bug from some obscure Chinese city would end up being so serious. I‘m in healthcare and tend to err on the abundantly cautious side by my very nature. I certainly didn’t predict the entire world was headed topsy-turvy into madness.

In fact I was so clueless, I even traveled to NYC with my husband for his birthday in late February of 2020. We stayed in Chinatown. There were no distancing precautions yet. We didn’t wear masks and saw exactly three people wearing a mask while we were there. In hindsight, one good decision we made was not to use public transport. Unbeknownst to us, we were in the heart of the epicenter of the pandemic as it was brewing and about to explode. Within two weeks, NYC boasted an infection rate five times greater than any other city in the US and accounted for one-third of the country’s total cases.

"The first case of laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 in NYC was diagnosed on February 29. The subsequent 3-month period was characterized by a rapid acceleration in the epidemic, resulting in approximately 203,000 cases and 18,600 deaths among persons with laboratory-confirmed COVID-19. Reported diagnoses of cases peaked 1 week after physical distancing orders were enacted (March 22.)"

While this isn’t an article on Covid-19, healthcare workers’ plight (and mental health hazards during Covid-19), or the pandemic per se, it needs to be discussed as it is deeply related to how every minute of my life suddenly weighed a billion pounds. I know I wasn’t alone in these feelings.

I’m definitely still not alone, which is why I decided to write this article.

Self-portrait. It's not pretty. It's reality. Photo credit VC Patel

At that time, I was a seasoned Home Health Speech Pathologist for geriatrics. My job entailed me traveling great distances to patient’s homes and then spending considerable time inside with them and their families and whoever else may be inside, in close proximity. Believe me; you’d be surprised by how many people may live within 4 very small walls.

Or be visiting.

Or both.

And all the kids were home, too. Kids don’t understand personal space or virus precautions or the risk a home health worker is already exposed to without adding in children climbing all over you and your equipment, coughing and sneezing, because they're bored and potentially unwell. This was much more common than most may realize, and highly uncomfortable for any clinician to mitigate inside someone else's home.

Not to mention, as an SLP, I’m a Dysphagia (Swallowing) and Voice specialist: both swallowing and voice rehab are well-known to expose an SLP to considerable respiratory droplets due to the nature of the therapy and the extreme closeness to patients. How else do we do rehab therapy? (The details of this are for another article perhaps).

What is relevant here is that I now needed to wear a KN-95 (the company couldn’t find N-95s like everybody else), with prescription glasses which fogged constantly, and a space invaders face shield that covered from a few inches above the crown of my head to mid- sternum, as well as medical gloves for every (non-Covid infected) patient, for the entirety of the 45-60 minute visit. Excluding Oasis Start of Cares, which Speech also does and I did often enough to note. Those take 2-2.5 hours in the home. All while documenting point of service care on a tablet, which is preferred by Medicare and the Home Health Company, text-typing in surgical gloves.

We’re talking pages of detailed notes with medical jargon and therapy terminology required for plans of care and reimbursement. This is not checking boxes or a word here and there. This is pages and pages of documentation, while you’re walking and talking, facilitating exercises and strategies, cueing, assessing, modifying, creating and delivering therapy appropriately and effectively utilizing evidence-based practice in a variable and unpredictable environment at baseline. It’s called skilled intervention for a reason.

Meanwhile, my eyeglasses rained condensation. My face shield clouded over. I literally couldn’t see and almost fell down over furniture, the family pet, front steps, (you name it), at least several times a day.

My face erupted with mask acne that wouldn’t go away. The maskne throbbed then it cracked and bled.

I wasn’t able to eat in my car. It was too risky.

I wasn’t able to use a restroom all day long. We’re not supposed to use patient’s restrooms, especially not during Covid-19. The usual reliable public places weren't open. Or, the stores were open for purchasing, but the bathrooms were locked and off-limits.

I mostly covered outlier areas so bathrooms were scarce to begin with, relying on the 15 mile marker pharmacy or a kind patient. None of that was an option. I also cover cities and that was no different.

Work life equaled pure abject hell. My bladder cried. My skin flaked from dehydration. I was starving. My face became scarred.

By the time I got home every day, I was exhausted. Most days, as soon as I walked in, I hopped skipped and danced my way through two happy dogs and a cat to the restroom with a true fear of peeing myself on the way.

The Turning Point

After about 6 months of this, and many other changes in routines and precautions including: Spraying hands and shoes with pure alcohol before entering my car, before entering the house, shoes outside on the porch without fail, shedding clothes in the washer directly, then immediately showering, all upon return from work. This affected my husband as well because he is a Physical Therapist in Home Health with another company. These procedures and protocols ruled our lives.

We lived and worked in a Hot Zone with a multitude of unknowns and uncertainties. Every house was a great risk to us. We didn’t know how badly of a risk. We knew people were dying across the globe. We knew our patients were dying.

I was exposed almost immediately when the pandemic first began to an unknown positive, who coughed in my face during a swallowing evaluation while I was only wearing a cloth mask stuffed with a homemade filter because we didn’t yet have PPE. I was fortunate to clear quarantine without symptoms and received a negative test.

This patient was hospitalized and never made it back home.

By Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Self-Awareness: Proactive Stress Mediation

Stress is insidious. It’s a killer for a reason. Both little stress and big stress speeds up death.

"The most stressed-out people have the highest risk of premature death, according to one study that followed 1,293 men for years."

"Chronic stress is hazardous to health and can lead to early death from heart disease, cancer and other health problems."

"There are a number of ways chronic stress can kill you," says (Dr Carolyn) Aldwin (Director the Center for Healthy Aging Research at Oregon State University). That includes increased levels of cortisol, often referred to as the stress hormone. Elevated cortisol levels interfere with learning and memory, lower immune function and bone density, and increase blood pressure, cholesterol and heart disease."

When the pandemic emerged then intensified, stress was living inside me in ways I still don’t fully realize. I wouldn’t stop doing my job. There was no way I would do my job without the PPE either, because older people need protection not exposure. Not showing up to work wasn't a consideration. Yet the weighty responsibility and exhaustion sucked the life force from my soul.

None of the usual de-stressing outlets existed. We could no longer travel which was our greatest outlet. We couldn’t go anywhere for fun. If we got sick, we wouldn’t be able to work for at least two weeks without pay.

I had no hobbies outside of some reading and writing, watching TV, two dogs and a cat. I recognized there needed to be an outlet. Burnout is real. Prevention is key.

One day in 2020 as I sat in the front room, introspecting, and looking around rather sadly. I recognized I needed oxygen, nature, the outdoors…but inside.

I craved it. I missed the tropics. I wanted my own jungle.

Plants!

That was it, I realized. Green is good. Why I picked something I was never good at was precisely part of the reason I chose it. I needed to lose myself.

Plants!

I’m known to be horrible with plants, gardens, growing and keeping anything with leaves alive. Everyone in my family has a green thumb but me. I also had never tried to become good at it. If I am anything, I am a learner. When I set my mind to try, I don’t quit.

That moment marked the beginning of my plant obsession. Yes, I am now completely obsessed with plants! Plants saved me.

I couldn’t just buy any plant I saw either. They had to be pet safe so the research began in earnest.

Self-Care begins with awareness. Start small. Photo Credit VC Patel

Pet Safe Plants

Safety first.

Anyone with pets understands it’s crucial to keep them as safe as possible from getting into things that can harm them, especially cats who are well-known to nibble and chew on green stuff. Cats are more vulnerable to the effects of most things including medications, household agents, as well as potentially toxic plants than a dog is however some plants, such as Lilies or Sago Palms, are equally deadly for both and can outright kill them.

A great resource to research poisonous plants is the ASPCA.

Another informative introductory article from an interview with a veterinarian can be found here.

Please, visit my other article where I discuss 8 interesting and easy pet safe plants in greater detail.

Note: Some plants are toxic for children, too.

By Tran Mau Tri Tam on Unsplash

Why Do Plants Help? What Effects do Plants Have on Your Mind and Environment?

I’m not sure what plants don’t do aside from they don’t repair the toilet or change the light bulbs in the house.

Here are some personal benefits I found from bringing indoor plants into my life:

1. Freshen the air

2. Visually appealing

3. Requires individualized care which is purpose-driven

4. Facilitates learning and studying various needs and conditions garnering new knowledge which is great for the brain

5. Encourages organic problem-solving

6. Growth and, sometimes, if you’re lucky and making them happy, plants bloom or propagate!

Curly Lipstick Blooming. Photo Credit VC Patel

7. Brings nature to the indoors

8. Encourages mental flexibility

9. Cleans common toxins from the environment improving quality of respiration and oxygen

10. Calms and Reassures

11. Lowers blood pressure

12. Improves focus and productivity

13. Stimulates creativity

14. Improves attention, memory, and mood

15. Breaks up monotony and derails anxiety

16. Brings peace and deepens meditative practices

17. Reflects effort given like a mirror

18. Heals

19. Connects us to the Earth

20. Teaches us to let go - not every plant will make it despite your best efforts and that’s okay

Growth begins with change. Photo credit Money Tree taken by VC Patel

Evidence of the Role of Plants for Good Health is Mounting

I certainly hadn’t researched any benefits from plants prior to my epiphany slash plant addiction. Intuition and the inner need for a self-salve drew me to plants. It was only after, much later, when I wanted to convey to others who I saw struggling emotionally, mentally, and physically during the pandemic what plants had done for me that I uncovered mountains of supporting, scientific research that’s catching up with intuition.

I work in an empirically-based field so science is important. I researched some more. Science supports and quantifies the many benefits of plants. Around the world, designers and architects are integrating plants into living and working spaces, creating "living walls" and "live plant spaces" due to the remarkable gains humans derive from being around plants.

"The researchers suggest that health improvements were likely due to two mechanisms: improved air quality and the psychological value of being in a more pleasing environment. The presence of plants may have created a microclimate effect that resulted in increased moisture (which could influence mucous membrane systems) as well as a cleansing of the chemicals in the air."

By Elifin Realty on Unsplash

Further, plants improve physical and mental health.

"Visual exposure to plants helped to reduce blood pressure, and recovery from stress within five minutes."

"A 2010 study by the University of Technology in Sydney quantified several reductions in workplace stress, just from plants. They found reductions of 37 percent in anxiety, 58 percent in depression, 44 percent in hostility, and 38 percent in fatigue."

"They are learning that the concept of “biophilia”—the innate human connection to nature—can make workplaces healthier and happier."

By Charles Etoroma on Unsplash

Self-Reflection

After a few weeks of my new plant obsession, as I began to gather pet safe plants that both appealed to me and promised they weren’t so high maintenance that maybe I could manage, possibly, hopefully not to kill them I already felt rejuvenated. Even when my husband matter-of-factly asked me, "Why did you pick plants when you're a known plant killer?"

I was not discouraged. "Because it's difficult in an entirely different way than my every day life and what this world has become," I responded. It was a distraction from all the bad.

Most days, after cleaning up after work, I would get busy checking soil, reading up on each new plant, assessing had I put it in the right spot. I kept moving. I kept busy with purpose and it wasn’t the usual anxiety-obsessive-restless movement after spending another insurmountably stressful workday in the Covid-19 healthcare landscape.

This new energy felt healthy and directed.

By Yeshi Kangrang on Unsplash

My successes grew as did my plant collection which sprouted from 0 to 5 then 17 then 42 plants. I admit I did lose about 6 in the past 1.5 years, proving my husband wrong. When the first plants began to arrive he was so worried, wondering how we would throw away all the dead larger plants once I was through with killing them off with good intentions? I still find those stats reassuring considering I once killed a tall, mature cactus that only survived me for a number of years, thanks to my Mother's frequent intervention.

I added plants as I lost plants. I succeeded more often than I failed. When I did succeed with my new plants, it was obvious. In my field, we call that immediate (bio) feedback. When I was doing well, I could literally see it; the plants were growing and thriving.

By Judah Guttmann on Unsplash

I've learned some plants are Divas. My Majesty Palm is demanding, very thirsty, and requires constant humidity so she has her very own humidifier. She spouts gorgeous large fronds for me regularly and orders me to fertilize her at least once a month.

"Her Majesty". Photo Credit VC Patel

My beloved Calatheas all fit into the Super Diva and Dramatic category – they can't stand tap water and are never satisfied. They turn brown if you look at them wrong. Frankly, Calathea, hate me. I've learned I’m not alone in this struggle because there are so many wonderful plant groups online and on Facebook where you can connect with others who are as, or even much more obsessed, than I am about plants.

Ah social connection, see, I forgot one. Plants promote social connection.

By young rc on Unsplash

It wasn't that long ago this plant love and therapy began for me. I don't recall what it was like not to have my own jungle in the house. How did I not know about this thriving plant-lovers galaxy before? This incredible world of greenery and greenery lovers: Some greenery architects possessing green thumbs from the Gods with their exotic, wildly textured and shaped, massive tropical indoor foliage captured only on the computer screen for me to observe, even across the globe. Plants are fascinating and intoxicating.

My husband says I have plants in every corner of the house. Not yet.

Goals are evolving.

One thing is absolutely true of plants: Plants need care just as we do.

Take care of your plants.

Take care of yourself.

The rate of burnout in the country is staggering. We’re so burned out. We haven’t even begun to realize the extent of it. For you, it may not be plants. It may be some other calling. Find a hobby that calls to you and go for it. You’ve got nothing to lose trying different things until you find what's right for you.

+++++

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it. I appreciate all the reads, likes, and tips. Please, look out for my other articles as I will be releasing a series related to this and other interests.

Take care, be safe and be well out there.

Sincerely,

Vania

wellness

About the author

VC Patel

There are many worlds inside me. I spend a lot of time there exploring.

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