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By Matt Skoufalos

Off the Clock: Patricia HammerIn the seemingly endless cycles of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) peaks and valleys, there are few health care professionals who haven’t been called upon to give everything they have to keeping things running. Despite that relentless pressure, which has lasted 18 months and counting, they’ve continued to rise to the moments with which they’re met. By the same token, however, workplace burnout is real, and just as uncompromising as the virus behind it.

“A lot of people don’t realize that the environment for imaging professionals is still very, very hard,” said X-ray technologist Patricia Hammer. “COVID isn’t as traumatic as it used to be for us, but it’s still very tangible, and every time numbers spike up, it’s a real kick to the gut.”

“We already did a lot of chest X-rays, but every single patient, we have to X-ray them multiple times a day, and multiple days of the week,” she said. “It’s very taxing. I don’t know if society really understands what hospitals are dealing with right now. Everybody worked through the pandemic, and now we’re still working, and we’re tired.”

In an attempt to mitigate the impact of COVID burnout, Hammer switched over from working full-time to a per-diem schedule split between Community Medical Center in Toms River, New Jersey, and Atlantic Medical Imaging, which has 16 offices throughout southern and central New Jersey. Recapturing some of her daylight hours gave Hammer more time with her daughters, aged 3 and 12, but it also gave her important time to tend the property at her Toms River home.

“From an imaging standpoint, we spend a lot of time in the dark,” Hammer said. “We’re in the basement, or in the middle of the building, surrounded by lead walls and concrete. We don’t see the sunlight until our break when we walk to our car, and there’s an ache there, when you have a job like that, for sunlight and grounding on the earth.”

“I crochet, I paint, draw; I like to play and learn songs on the ukulele, but if I’m not caring, feeding, and entertaining my family, you’ll find me in the garden,” Hammer said.

Throughout her childhood, Hammer recalled learning about the importance of carrying an ecological conscience into the world, “and how we had to try harder,” a lesson that’s stuck with her as she planned how she would cultivate her homestead.

Off the Clock: Patricia Hammer

“There’s just something that motivates me to live as gently as possible, because in 20 years, I don’t want my children or even grandchildren saying, ‘Why didn’t you do something?’ ” Hammer said. “That’s a responsibility that I don’t want. That’s a big motivator in the way that I do the things I do and why I do them.”

“I’m also trying to teach my daughters as well,” she said. “If I impart this knowledge upon them, it will be easier for them to have a sustainable life.”

Among those intentions, Hammer has done the work to create a registered wildlife habitat on her land, which means maintaining the property with sustainable practices (no pesticides, no chemical fertilizers); offering shelter for animals to hide, hunt or take cover from the elements; and providing food, water and a place to raise their young.

Perhaps more impressively, she’s taken a fraction of an acre of sandy Jersey pinelands and stocked it with native and companion plant species that attract beneficial bugs, support one another in balance, and foster the local native ecosystem.

“I have two extremes on my property: the front yard’s all sun, the backyard’s all shade,” Hammer said. “When we moved in, there was a lot of erosion because we have a ravine on the back of our property. I have these things working against me, and I don’t want to fight them.”

“I have a clover lawn; in the springtime, there’s flowers and bees everywhere,” she said. “In the summertime, there’s sequential blooming throughout the season, so I have flowers all the time. We’ve got several species of milkweed to foster the monarch butterfly population and dill weed for swallowtail butterflies.”

Getting to this point hasn’t been easy. It’s taken Hammer three years of working through the seasons to get the results she’s seen by now, adding new species to the garden multiple times per year. But the rewards are meaningful. Her vegetable garden has yielded “too many tomatoes to count,” pumpkin vines, grapevines, black-eyed Susans, echinacea; even a watermelon plant spilling out of her compost tumbler. A raspberry patch on the side of the house got her children interested in picking berries right from the plants and popping them in their mouths.

“People plant flower gardens in their front yard; I’m planting sage, and some daisies, and oregano, and thyme, and an almond tree,” Hammer said. “Not only are they delicious, but they have flowers that all the native bees and butterflies love.”

Hammer confesses that not everyone understands what she’s up to. She once told a colleague how healthy compost is for the planet; that colleague replied that she doesn’t recycle because she feels bad making the garbage haulers come to her house twice a week. Undeterred, Hammer said she’ll work to set a good example while helping those who can benefit from her insight.

“If someone asks my opinions, I help,” she said. “I’ve donated seed collections and plant cuttings and instructions about where to plant to a coworker. Now he’s letting me know when he sees bargains on plants certain times of the year. It’s nice to branch out to these people who are trying the same way I am, and with even more knowledge.”

Beyond transforming her home into a wildlife habitat, feeding her family, and pushing back against the degradation of the planet, gardening is a meditative practice that Hammer said leaves her feeling “absolutely renewed” just by engaging in it. The moments she spends out of doors are some of her most treasured; they underpin a day marked by intense demands, and provide a necessary respite from the relentless pace of the pandemic.

“I tend to rush when I do things, but gardening makes me stop, think, plan, wait, and then, when a seed grows, it’s very validating,” Hammer said. “It’s often hard in this world to slow down and have gratitude for life, and I think gardening really does force me to do that.”



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