Landscape artist bounces back from chemo at St. Elizabeth’s | Community

From: St. Elizabeth Hospital and Clinics


What happens when a landscape designer and horticultural specialist faces an unexpected scourge of thorns and thistles? Not the garden variety type that invades and threatens the natural world, but the life-altering kind that ravages body, mind, and spirit and endangers his very existence. He stops and smells the roses. 

For Mark Swart, of Winona, this is his story. And right now, life has never felt so sweet. For someone who has devoted his career to transforming outdoor spaces, he knows a thing or two about fighting off invasive weeds. But when the nemesis that was attacking his lungs was diagnosed as stage four melanoma, it was a battle that required extra reinforcements.

Mark is well-known for his landscape artistry and architectural expertise. His creative work adorns the surroundings of many homes and businesses in Winona and beyond. One such project can be found in a courtyard at Gundersen St. Elizabeth’s Hospital and Clinics in Wabasha. When Mark was hired to design a healing space for patients, he met Tom Crowley, senior consultant with St. Elizabeth’s Community Development Foundation, and a friendship emerged that became a literal lifeline for Mark.

“From the first day I walked into the hospital, I sensed a feeling of calm and contentment,” Swart shared. “It is a friendly and welcoming place just like the spaces I try to create.” 

It was this lasting impression that prompted him to reconnect with Tom and Gundersen St. Elizabeth’s when cancer treatments left him weak, weary, and wasting away. Immunotherapy and chemo infusions initially prescribed took a tremendous toll. When lingering side effects and loss of appetite claimed 50 pounds, his oncology team at Gundersen Health System in La Crosse, Wis., prescribed a new treatment plan, while his family encouraged caregiving assistance.

“I was living alone and so tired and sick,” he explained. “I struggled to eat, and caring for myself was too much. By early summer, I didn’t think I was going to make it. So, I called Tom. If I could find a temporary place to rest and recuperate, maybe I could turn the corner. And that is just what happened.”

About the time Mark moved into St. Elizabeth’s Senior Living Apartments, he was placed on an experimental oral chemotherapy drug. As Mark’s oncologist monitored his progress, the St. Elizabeth’s team rallied around him to make him feel right at home. A small apartment provided a safe haven for healing. Home care staff administered his medications and attended to his healthcare needs. Dietary staff prepared flavorful and nutritious meals to awaken his taste buds. Physical therapy focused on rebuilding his balance, strength, and endurance. Senior living residents offered a calming presence and neighborly companionship.  

All of this was necessary, but what really revved his recovery was not so much what the staff did but how they did it. This respite – away from work and home responsibilities – healed his body, but also fed his heart and soul. 

“Everyone I encountered treated me with kindness, dignity, and grace. The staff was professional and encouraging. I was so well cared for. They seemed to know what I needed before I did. I didn’t have to worry about anything,” Mark shared. “I gave my full attention to getting well. I felt my stress and anxiety melt away as I began to relax, knowing I was in good hands. I remember wishing for a day when I would feel normal again and back in the game. Not long after, I woke up feeling better than I had in a long time. It was a beautiful summer day. I took a ride along the river and thought to myself, ‘This is a good day!’”   

Mark returned home in early August, feeling hopeful. His chemo is working. His side effects are gone. He is well on his way to regaining the weight he lost. St. Elizabeth’s and Gundersen Health System gave Mark the miracle of a second chance, and he plans to use the time he has differently. So, he’s redesigning his “lifescape.” Like any healthy garden, he will need to weed (remove anything that threatens to choke out joy), prune (cut back on work and transition to semi-retirement), fertilize )strengthen his family roots and connections with friends), and water (care and tend to his well-being and appreciate every good day that remains).

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