Dougherty: Understanding the hidden life of trees—and hospitals

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Dougherty: Understanding the hidden life of trees—and hospitals

Tue, 08/09/2022 - 7:23am -- tim

by Christopher J. Dougherty, President and Chief Executive Officer of Brattleboro Memorial Hospital

Arguably, our large brains make human beings the most intelligent species on earth. Yet only now are we coming around to a full scientific and perhaps even spiritual appreciation of the deep and interconnected relationship we have with the natural world.

As we learn from Peter Wohlleben’s 2015 book The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World, trees are actually smart! And not only do they play an invaluable role in maintaining the health of our planet, they have sophisticated survival strategies and coping mechanisms that are easily overlooked or taken for granted by the untrained eye.

I would argue that just as trees are essential to the life and future of the planet, community hospitals like Brattleboro Memorial Hospital (BMH) have an analogous role in the regions they serve. As such, we must nurture, support and guide these vital community assets or we place ourselves in peril.

As Wohlleben explains, trees serve as our planet’s lungs. They remove carbon dioxide from the air, replace it with life-giving oxygen, and thus ensure continuity of earth’s essential water and CO2 cycle.

At BMH we do much of the same for our community. As a major employer and non-profit health care provider, we exist to promote and elevate the health of the community and provide essential life blood as both an economic engine and a steward and promoter of quality of life.

Fittingly, the design of BMH’s hospital logo is based on a tree. And just like many living trees, BMH has deep roots. These roots play a crucial role in keeping our community healthy, stable, and resistant to forces that would otherwise seek to erode our foundation.

I count BMH’s role in southern Vermont’s battle against the ongoing coronavirus pandemic as a shining example of the importance of having deep, healthy roots. Were we to fail to maintain and nurture these roots, people in our community would suffer, Illness and injury would prevail as access to care would deteriorate and jobs would be lost.

Wohlleben argues (and research supports) that trees are able to learn and adapt to both danger and injury. He also asserts that trees are social beings able to recognize their own kin, share food, and communicate with one another.

Likewise, BMH is a social organization that is constantly learning, changing, accommodating, and evolving. As we emerge from the pandemic, for example, BMH is poised to transform itself into a forward looking, value-based healthcare system that prioritizes wellness and the overall health of the population we serve.

Following the pandemic and related challenges such as inflation and workforce shortages, it’s fair to say that BMH, like most hospitals in the nation, has been injured. Our current financial outlook is under threat; yet like our beloved trees we are coping and adapting by engineering new survival strategies.

To protect itself from further injury BMH has presented the Green Mountain Care Board with a budget proposal for fiscal year 2023 that we believe is reasonable and responsible. That’s because it focuses on stabilizing BMH and ensuring the long-term continuity of our mission.

Part of the difficulty in understanding trees is that trees live on timelines different than our own. Most live decades or centuries longer than the average human being, and that makes us think of them as somehow permanent and immune to threat. Hospitals can suffer from the same misconception, and that’s why we need to take thoughtful action to make sure they remain viable for our communities now and for future generations.

I’ll close with one last concept from Wohlleben’s book, which is that trees actually help one another. As such, they are dependent on their ecosystem, and their ecosystem is dependent on them. BMH’s sole purpose is to serve this wonderful community. This community is extremely dependent upon BMH; and BMH, in turn, is extremely dependent on this community.

Soon I will be meeting with the Green Mountain Care Board to review BMH’s budget proposal and hopefully obtain approval so that we can stabilize our hospital. Just as we need the life-giving gifts of the beautiful trees that surround us, this community needs BMH to continue serving as its treasured hub of hope, health, and healing.