Planting the Seeds of Good Health

Dr. Laura Armstrong’s Vegetable Garden is Building a Healthier Community

By Alyson Ward

Dr. Laura Armstrong loves to plant a seed and watch it thrive. She knows how to foster a fledgling carrot crop or tend a vine until it’s teeming with tomatoes.

She puts those same skills to use in her daily work, as well, whether she’s treating patients or training new doctors. She is cultivating good health, offering nourishment, tending to people and helping them grow.

Dr. Armstrong, a family practice physician, sees patients at Memorial Hermann Medical Group’s Physicians at Sugar Creek, a primary care center in Sugar Land that serves as a clinic location for family medicine residents. There, she also oversees medical students and newly minted doctors as a faculty physician for Memorial Hermann’s Memorial Family Medicine Residency Program.

And on a patch of ground behind the Sugar Creek clinic, Dr. Armstrong has found a way to combine two of her greatest passions: She installed a vegetable garden that is yielding piles of fresh produce – accessible to patients in need and the community-at-large – in a move that further cements Memorial Hermann’s efforts to influence health beyond the walls of its clinics and hospitals.

From helping guide a new resident on her first day on the labor and delivery unit at the hospital, to diagnosing sore throats and ear infections – and occasionally dashing outside to peek in on her garden – Dr. Armstrong’s job underscores the future of Memorial Hermann and its commitment to fostering healthier communities.

6:45 A.M. BREAKFAST AT HOME

Mornings are a bit hectic for Dr. Armstrong and her husband, who have three kids. Breakfast is usually whatever’s quick and easy. This morning it’s cereal, and then it’s time to get the kids out the door to school and the youngest – baby Aurora – to her grandparents, who take care of her during the day.

Even when they’re pressed for time, Dr. Armstrong tries to stress the importance of healthy eating with her family. They have their own vegetable garden in a corner of the back yard.

“The way I teach my kids to eat vegetables is in the garden,” she says. Her children know about what grows in a garden, and helping plant seeds and harvest the produce makes them more willing to try a bite. She’s seen her eldest, 6-year-old Logan, eat carrots straight out of the dirt.

9:34 A.M. TEACHINGINTERNS AND EXAMINING BABIES

Dr. Armstrong’s first stop is at Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital, where she sits at a computer next to Dr. Ranna Al-Dossari, an intern who has just made her first round of patient visits. Dr. Al-Dossari delivers a quick run-through of her notes about each mother and baby, and the two soon head out into the hallways to visit the patients together. For the next hour or so, they move from room to room; Dr. Armstrong gives each newborn a head-to-toe exam, and she and her intern consult with new moms who are having trouble breastfeeding.

“In the first couple of days, a lot of mothers are anxious and don’t think that they can successfully breastfeed,” she says. “They feel their body is not enough when it really is. So a lot of times my job is to just help them calm their anxiety and tell them they’re doing great.”

Today, every newborn they visit is healthy and thriving. Dr. Al-Dossari follows her instructor from patient to patient, watching as she reassures new moms that they’re doing just fine.

“Luckily, everything this morning was fairly straightforward,” Dr. Armstrong says as they return to an office behind the nursery. She shows Dr. Al-Dossari how to file discharge orders, then gets ready to leave for her next appointment. “Do you feel pretty comfortable with everything you’ve got to do for the rest of the afternoon?”

Dr. Al-Dossari nods. Dr. Armstrong will be back in the labor and delivery unit the next morning – but for now, she’s headed to Physicians at Sugar Creek.

12:07 P.M. PEEKING IN ON THE PRODUCE

Dr. Armstrong has a few free minutes before a lunch meeting, so she slips out the clinic’s back door to check on the garden.

Tall, sinewy okra grows thick near a batch of purple kale. A few plump cherry tomatoes are ripe for the picking, as is a deep purple eggplant.

This garden is a group effort – physicians, residents and patients all help maintain it and are rewarded in produce. Dr. Armstrong usually schedules community work days a few Saturdays a year – but often, at unscheduled times, she says, “I look out the window and see people.”

Many of the clinic’s patients are low-income with limited resources, Dr. Armstrong says. That’s why there’s often a basket at the clinic’s front desk stuffed with lettuce and onions, carrots and kale. “Take whatever you will eat,” a sign tells patients.

Dr. Armstrong came up with the idea for the garden about three years ago. She was inspired by a community garden in Montrose, her own Houston neighborhood. There, neighbors tended their personal plots and shared with each other; she’d see older folks teaching neighborhood kids about growing plants.

That’s when Dr. Armstrong started eyeing an unused strip of land just behind the Sugar Creek practice, a grassy area that slopes down to a small creek. She recruited residents and faculty, even patients to help her turn that strip of grass into a series of rectangular beds. A bake sale raised the money to install an underground watering system.

Now, Dr. Armstrong says, patients get excited about the idea of eating veggies. She used to see patients feeding their kids Skittles and vending machine cupcakes. Now, they bring her seeds they’d like to plant and request vegetables they want to add to their families’ diets.

The garden has also been a therapeutic place for young residents – many of whom are new to Houston and living in apartments with no green spaces of their own.

“I do a lot of activities with the residents to focus on their own personal wellness,” Dr. Armstrong says. Working in the garden offers an opportunity for long conversations, whether they’re adjusting to a new city or coping with the demands of their new roles. “I’ve had lots and lots of good conversations with residents out in the garden.”

1:32 P.M. AN AFTERNOON OF APPOINTMENTS

After lunch with an advisee, Dr. Armstrong has a full schedule of appointments with patients. It’s different from the morning’s instructing, but in many ways it’s the same.

In a similar manner that Dr. Armstrong uses the garden as a teaching tool, she treats every interaction with patients as an opportunity to advocate about healthier lifestyles.

“Seeing patients is education, too,” Dr. Armstrong says – especially the way she does it. She’s determined to help her patients live healthier lives, and often that means teaching them better ways to feed themselves and their families.

6:14 P.M. FRESH TOMATOES FOR DINNER

At home, Dr. Armstrong and her husband, Trey, are preparing dinner. She sends her two older kids, Logan and 3-year-old Fiona, out to play in the backyard – and gives them instructions to find as many ripe cherry tomatoes as they can.

“Now it’s a hide-and-go-seek game with the vegetables,” Dr. Armstrong says. “They’ll almost compete over the tomatoes.” Logan has discovered he can climb the back fence and sit in the low branches of a loquat tree, picking and eating loquats right from the tree.

“I want my kids involved in seeing where their food comes from and being willing to eat it,” she says.

Dr. Armstrong’s passion for gardening is winning over her patients and her young children, making fresh produce attractive and enticing. “Excitement’s always contagious,” she says, and she is nurturing that excitement at work and at home.

She puts those same skills to use in her daily work, as well, whether she’s treating patients or training new doctors. She is cultivating good health, offering nourishment, tending to people and helping them grow.

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