Virginia-based doctor Eleanor Love has a secret hobby. She regularly attends weddings after they’ve ended, even though she doesn’t know anyone in the wedding party, to collect flowers before they wind up in the trash. Then, with permission, she brings them to her patients at work to boost their spirits. It’s all a part of “The Simple Sunflower,” a community-based project to help hospital patients feel a little less alone.
Love got into the leftover flower business when she was a medical student at Virginia Commonwealth University Hospital. She first got the idea when taking care of terminally ill patients. She wanted to relieve their suffering outside of her responsibilities as a student doctor.
“One of the challenges of being a medical student is that it can be very difficult to contribute to the care team. You are there primarily as a learner, but you want to make an impact on your patients, and you don’t have the same knowledge as physicians,” Love remembers.
Despite her limited experience, she thought, “How can I at this stage in my training make an impact on patients?”
That’s when she got the idea to bring them flowers. Who doesn’t love a bouquet of bright petals? It also shows her patients that she’s thinking of them when she’s not at their side.
To get the flowers, she would usually call the wedding planner or coordinator and ask if she could stop by after the festivities. Most people don’t have plans for their flowers after the big day, so Love scoops them up instead. She says they are usually in good shape and her patients don’t know the difference.
The flowers are having a power-inducing effect as well. Studies show flowers can help people heal from disease and illness, improve mood and relaxation, and boost memory. Another study suggests flowers can reduce pain, fatigue, and anxiety in patients recovering from surgery.
Connie Melzer was recovering from a heart condition at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center when Love brought in a bouquet. “I just broke down and I cried,” Melzer said. “When you’re there six to eight weeks, it’s a big deal.”
Spreading the Love
The Simple Sunflower project is booming over two years later. Love and her team of over 200 volunteers have delivered over 750 bouquets of flowers to patients at VCU Medical Center. She says the idea of sending flowers to someone in the hospital isn’t exactly revolutionary, and that other cities have similar programs in place. The difference is in how they get the flowers.
Love will usually send a small team of eight volunteers to help pick up the flowers after a wedding, usually white roses, white hydrangeas, and other white flowers. They then separate them into vases for individual patients. Volunteers typically deliver between 20 and 40 bouquets every Monday. Others will send money or donations to help, as well.
Love says the project went on pause during the pandemic, but things are quickly ramping up now that the wedding industry is back in full swing.
News has spread fast. People outside of the VCU community started contacting her, asking how they can help. “Once the word got out, folks started reaching out to us,” Love said.
For her, flowers are personal. She worked part-time at a flower shop while pursuing a career in medicine. She also remembers helping her father in the garden as a young girl and picking out seed packets at the gardening supply store. She went straight for the sunflower seeds, which is how the project got its name.
At the end of the day, it’s all about sending a positive message to her patients and helping them recover as quickly as possible.
“Offering flowers to our patients provides the same benefit. Ultimately, that saves the hospital money if the patient doesn’t need that much pain medicine, or even if the patient can leave the hospital a day earlier.”
Love asked her mom, Robin Foster, professor and director of the Child Protection Team at Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU Medical Center, about the idea.
“I do think that flowers help with the healing process,” said Foster, adding, “Your mind needs to be in the right place to successfully complete that journey.”
Foster says flowers can help brighten the patient’s otherwise sterile surroundings.
“The thoughtfulness of those who have prepared them and delivered them gives patients a sense of hope and intrinsic value in the world,” Foster added.
Love says she plans on moving to Portland, Oregon after she’s done with her general residency to complete a special residency in diagnostic radiology. She’d love to bring the project to more cities and medical facilities in the future.
“Being able to help deliver the flowers to those patients is very meaningful because you just see those patients’ faces light up,” Love said. “You connect with them on a different level.”