At Yale clinic, a community garden aims to cultivate patient-physician bond

A dream of a late faculty member from the Yale School of Medicine, the garden seeks to foster connection with patients and help address food insecurity.
Alexander Ambrosini and Emily Fishman working on constructing the garden

When Alexander Ambrosini and Emily Fishman were considering different hospital residencies a couple of years ago, one of the factors that drew them to Yale School of Medicine (YSM) was the school’s emphasis on connecting with the New Haven community.

During medical school, Ambrosini and Fishman had both been involved with a community garden at a medical center that served North Carolina's largest Medicaid population. At the garden, patients, staff, and doctors tended the raised beds throughout the year, and the produce — including fresh kale, sweet potatoes, and squash — was distributed to patients in need.

When Ambrosini spoke about the garden during his YSM residency interview with Paul Bernstein, associate program director of Yale’s Traditional Residency Training Program, Bernstein mentioned that there was a vacant plot of land outside of the New Haven Primary Care Consortium (NHPCC), located at 150 Sargent Drive, and that then-director, the late Laura Whitman, dreamed of turning it into a community garden for the clinic’s vulnerable patient population.

Both were suddenly excited by the prospects, Ambrosini remembers.

In March 2021, he and Fishman matched at Yale, and a few months later arrived in New Haven with hopes of developing the plot. Once on campus, they began assessing the land, the needs of the patient population, and the possible role the garden would play in the clinic, which provides primary care, women’s care, and addiction treatment services to patients across Greater New Haven.

Across the region, food insecurity is a critical public health threat. A 2017 “State of Hunger in New Haven” report found that 22% of city residents are food insecure — a percentage that grew as a result of rising unemployment during the pandemic.

Although Ambrosini and Fishman never got the chance to meet Whitman — she died in January 2023 after a long illness — the passing of the well-loved patient-centered physician, described by colleagues as a “doctor’s doctor,” motivated them to get the garden up and running as soon as possible.

In late March they broke ground on the plot, which is located behind the clinic. The garden, Fishman said, will yield fresh produce, and perhaps nonperishable items, for patients. (Specifically, organizers hope to cultivate tomatoes, zucchini, and lettuce.) Also, she said, it will allow patients and clinic staff a chance to get their hands dirty and learn what it means to grow food.

According to Bernstein, Laura Whitman set a tone within the residency program that encouraged community action, not just theoretical advocacy.

She adored her patients, she respected them, and she expected people to show them the dignity they deserve,” he said. “She underscored the importance of the relationship between the medical school and the people of New Haven — the residents learning by taking care of the patients, and the patients receiving very good care.”

Fishman believes that the first step in bonding with patients is understanding what, in a holistic sense, will make them healthier and how the clinic can partner with them to reach this goal. “If we can incentivize patients to come to visits, where they can get food, we can make a connection, talk about recipes, talk about health,” she said.

Ambrosini hopes the garden will also show patients that doctors care about them.

Even though we're telling patients to buy a new medication that's going to act on this one little receptor in their heart, at the end of the day, I want them to also have a nice meal with their family,” he said.

Bernstein says he can’t think of a better way to draw people together in the way that Whitman would have wanted. “There’s almost a poetic sense of love when medical care extends beyond medication and laboratory tests,” he said. “When you hand somebody a bag of tomatoes or some small eggplant and say, ‘Eat,’ it doesn't get any more basic than that.”

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