Comforting the sick with flowers


The man who telephoned the florist said he wanted to send an arrangement to an acquaintance who was hospitalized.

What kind of flowers did he request?

Dead ones.

The shop refused to accept the order, one of the more bizarre requests in Lee Wilhide's 40 years as a florist.

"Flowers should carry cheerfulness into a hospital room," says Mr. Wilhide, who owns four stores in the Baltimore-Washington area.

Flowers have comforted the sick for centuries. They still do. Hospitals and home illness account for 15 per cent of the floral trade nationwide, with arrangements averaging $28 apiece.

Some cost much more. Former President Ronald Reagan traditionally sends displays of three dozen roses to hospitalized friends. Huge bouquets of orchids, and elaborate carousels constructed entirely of flowers, are delivered regularly to celebrities at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Some patients there have been known to receive 300 arrangements during their stay.

"Our lobby may look like a flower shop because of deliveries to one patient," says Ron Wise of Cedars-Sinai. "If two celebrities are here at the same time, it can resemble the Rose Bowl Parade."

St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, Calif., was bathed in purple last year following Elizabeth Taylor's admittance. Violet-colored flowers, matching the actress' eyes, poured into her room from friends and fans. "She received just about everything," says a hospital spokeswoman.

Some deliveries are truly eccentric. At St. Luke's Hospital in New Bedford, Mass., one patient received a tree.

"It stood four feet tall, in a huge pot," says the hospital's Janet Koska. "But we found a corner for it in the room."

Most florists, mindful of the shortage of space in hospitals, try to discourage extravagant displays.

"Hospitals complain about the size of some arrangements," says Mr. Wilhide, the Maryland florist. "Nurses refer to the big ones as 'funeral pieces.' The flowers get in their way.

"Some customers want to get ostentatious, but we try to keep things small."

Mr. Wilhide offers these tips on sending flowers:

* Consider the severity of the patient's illness. Flowers are banned from most critical care, cardiac, cancer and burn units. If the patient has allergies or lung problems, suggest a silk flower arrangement.

* Send a bouquet when it can be most appreciated. Wait at least one day after a serious operation. But don't procrastinate. Hospital stays keep getting shorter. New mothers may leave in two days; heart transplant patients are released in less than two weeks.

* Consider sending a live plant instead of cut flowers. Plants now comprise half of the florist's hospital business, a 400 percent increase since 1980. Flowering plants such as cyclamens, gloxinias and Belgian azaleas are gaining popularity, as is the "dish garden," a mixture of green plants set into a single arrangement.

Spider plants, begonias and philodendrons are also turning up at bedside.

If you're visiting a sick friend but forgot to bring flowers, relax. Many hospitals sell them on the premises. Simple bouquets are available in many gift shops. Some hospitals, such as Johns Hopkins Hospital, have regular florist shops in the lobby.

A growing number of hospitals, including St. Agnes in Baltimore City, have installed flower vending machines, where customers insert their money (between $5 and $20), slide open the plastic window and remove their roses as they would a sandwich.

Remember that children who are hospitalized also enjoy floral arrangements, particularly imaginative displays, says Thea Calhoun, director of recreation therapy at Children's Hospital in Orange County, Calif.

"Our teens love the new purple roses," she says. "The unusual color catches their eye and reduces their stress.

"Younger patients like arrangements with stuffed animals," she adds. "If the bouquet has a little bear in there, the child will enjoy it a lot more."

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