Rachel Troke and Daniel Turner
Rachel Troke and Daniel Turner pictured in the entranceway of the "secret garden." Rachel's nursing colleagues, Margarita, Victoria and Angela also helped decorate the oasis. (Photo: UHN)

Welcome to a secret garden filled with paper lanterns, flowers, butterflies and cherry blossoms. It's located in a place you would never expect to find it – a hospital room.

When a patient's wish to visit the Asian village she was born in was disrupted suddenly by an aggressive palliative cancer diagnosis, Rachel Troke, Registered Nurse at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, felt the need to act.

"How do I turn a hospital room into a Chinese garden?" Rachel wondered, hoping to create an oasis of tranquility and whimsy in the room for the patient's final moments.

In her off time, Rachel made flowers out of tissue paper by hand, tacked butterflies to the windows, put out cherry blossoms, and, with the help of her colleagues, strung glow-in-the-dark paper lanterns from the ceiling. She even brought in a small panda hat to hang on the door to entertain the patient's beloved three-year-old nephew.

When the patient arrived in her new room, it wasn't the sterile hospital environment she expected. In fact, with her brother's addition of an essential oil diffusor, jokes quickly circulated about the room being a mini spa.

"That extra effort really changed the dynamic," says Daniel Turner, the patient's partner.

"We were all inspired to add our own touches. We dimmed the lights, played soothing music – the energy in the room completely shifted.

"It meant a lot to her. She loved to share how Rachel handmade the flowers and often spoke about the nurses and their extreme compassion."

That night, relaxing in their garden, they ordered Vietnamese food. It was a rare opportunity for them to feel normal again and say their final goodbyes.

Caring for people, not patients

Rachel has known since she was six that her calling was to be a nurse. She gets joy from bringing creativity and lightheartedness into what could otherwise be a challenging environment.

Above all else, she wants her patients to feel like themselves, despite the burden of cancer.

"As clinicians we have to remember that our patients are people outside of the hospital," she says.

"They come here and hear many medical terms and conversations about their diagnosis. It's important that we help them stay connected to who they are, to do whatever makes them feel normal."

Rachel draws on her past experience in pediatric oncology for inspiration as well. 

"We do this kind of thing all the time for kids," she says. "Why can't we do the same for adults?

"Hospitals shouldn't be dark places. This was just one way that we could bring in some light."

"It's a shifting of focus in palliative care," says Pearlina Dawes, Nurse Manager of the Palliative Care Unit and Medical Radiation Oncology at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre.

"It becomes less about the disease, and what is lost. Instead it's about what we can do for people in their final moments."

For Pearlina and Patient Care Coordinator Ana Luisa Costa, helping patients have a good death is as important as a good life.

"To remain dignified and comfortable in the face of death is powerful for our patients and their families," says Pearlina.

Ana Luisa nods and adds that helping patients die pain free and without distress also helps staff with their work on a palliative care unit.

"This work is intense and we have to help each other get through it," says Ana Luisa.

"Participating in a good death brings a measure of peace not only to the patients and families, but to our care teams, as well."

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