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WORLD FOCUS: Creating a therapeutic labyrinth

February 9, 2017
By FRANK SHATZ , Lake Placid News

It is quite fitting that Eastern State Hospital in Williamsburg, Virginia, the country's first psychiatric hospital, founded in 1773, was the first public psychiatric hospital in the country to create a therapeutic labyrinth on its grounds.

How it came about is a story by itself.

The idea of creating a labyrinth at the Eastern State Hospital occurred to Dr. Gabriel Koz, at that time medical director of the institute. At the dedication of the labyrinth in 2002, a plaque was placed at the entrance. It reads, in part:

Article Photos

Labyrinth at Eastern State Hospital in Williamsburg, Virginia
(Photo provided)

"This labyrinth represents an opportunity for walking meditation that is one of the oldest contemplative and transformational tools known to humankind. For centuries, the labyrinth has been used to promote healing, connection, community and peace."

I asked Dr. Koz what gave him the idea to create this labyrinth.

"It begins, strangely enough in medical school, in Johannesburg, South Africa. My professor of neurosurgery, a mentor, counseled me that, no matter where I practiced, I should always strive to sustain two goals: To provide my patients with excellent care and be of service to the community," Dr. Koz said in an recent interview with the Lake Placid News and the Virginia Gazette.

He explained that, to him, neurosurgery was related to psychiatry. After obtaining degrees at Oxford University and Harvard, he became medical director of the 1,500-bed psychiatric hospital on Ward's Island in New York City. He wondered how to utilize the hospital's 200 acres to serve patients' needs as well as the community. He came up with a plan to create a sculpture garden.

The New York Times quoted Dr. Koz saying, "We want to humanize Ward's Island, upgrade morale and improve the environment."

He did both, and the sculpture garden grew to become the largest in New York state, providing space for known and upcoming sculptors for the benefit of patients and the community.

According to Dr. Koz, the labyrinth at Eastern State Hospital in Williamsburg is a calming, meditative modality. It is unlike a maze, which is a puzzle to be solved. You have to locate an exit to the maze, a task which is anxiety provoking. A labyrinth has no "walls" higher than 1 foot, and a path guides one to the center, and then out again. It accommodates a wheelchair or two people, aide by the side. The ESH labyrinth is 1/3 of a mile in, 1/3 of mile out, just over a half mile in total. If walkers feel tired, they simply step out.

I asked Dr. Koz about the conditions he had to meet to gain permission to build the labyrinth.

"The state government in Richmond approved the building of the labyrinth on the hospital grounds," Dr. Koz said. "The only condition was that it should not be paid by taxpayers' money. That was earmarked for patient care. Thus, private funds were needed to accomplish the task."

He explained, "a magnificent coalition" came together that included local philanthropists, such as Elizabeth Pollard, and the staff of ESH that provided the brick-laying skill and labor in their own time, on weekends and after work. There was also a link established with the psychology department at William & Mary. Students supervised groups of patients who visited the labyrinth.

At the end our tour of the labyrinth, we encountered the lady pastor from Bruton Parish Church, the Rev. Lauren McDonald, director of spiritual recovery. She was just starting her walk at the labyrinth. She said, "I come here at least once a week. It is such a peaceful place. A good source for attaining peace of mind."

Frank Shatz's column was reprinted with permission from the Virginia Gazette. Shatz is a Lake Placid seasonal resident. He is the author of "Reports from a Distant Place," a compilation of his selected columns.



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