MultiCare’s beautifier refuses to slow down

Doctors have told Sheldon Arkin that he should retire and draw disability, but his passion for his work beautifying the MultiCare clinic in Covington keeps him going.

Groundskeeper stays at it despite condition

Doctors have told Sheldon Arkin that he should retire and draw disability, but his passion for his work beautifying the MultiCare clinic in Covington keeps him going.

“I’m one of those people who can’t stand Friday and can’t wait until Monday,” Arkin said. “I don’t want to dwell on my health issues.”

Despite having chronic pancreatitis, Arkin, 58, tends to the grounds of the clinic as part of his duties for MultiCare Health System, which is headquartered in Tacoma.

“I was hired originally to build the rose garden that we have in Tacoma,” said Arkin, who also handles the horticulture at other MultiCare facilities, including the clinics in Auburn and Kent. “We have a world-class rose garden (at Tacoma General Hospital) that’s won awards. That’s kind of our claim to fame.”

He has worked for MultiCare for nearly two decades, and as it has expanded, so has his efforts to fulfill his mission.

“You come to a medical facility because something is wrong,” he said. “I believe you need to have an environment outside that calms you down when you see beautiful green plants. It makes the whole healthcare and healing process easier.”

When MultiCare opened its health care services building more than a decade ago, Arkin said, there was nothing there and Covington didn’t have much in the way of open space. In a way, it became the defacto community park for the city.

“I took it on my own to start planting trees and created an arboretum,” he said. “I’ve planted over 200 types of trees out there. I love tropical plants, too. That’s what I have out in those flower beds outside of the building.”

In fact, when the Reporter tracked Arkin down, he was at a nursery taking advantage of a 40 percent-off sale to pick up more trees for the Covington grounds. He won’t plant them until the fall, when it’s cooler and they have a better chance of survival.

Doctors, clinic employees and patients all love the work Arkin does, according to clinic administrator Hugh Kodama.

“He’s so passionate about what he does,” Kodama said, “We get a lot of comments from patients about the grounds. I see patients going over and smelling the flowers. He spends extra hours trying to make Covington as beautiful as possible.”

Kodama said that Arkin, who has a bachelor’s degree in horticulture from Texas A&M University and a master’s degree in botany from Humboldt State, loves what he does so much that he spends extra hours planting, weeding and watering.

Arkin carries on despite his potentially fatal medical condition – ongoing inflammation of the pancreas, an organ behind the stomach that produces chemicals needed to digest food. Sufferers of chronic pancreatitis don’t produce the right amount of enzymes needed to digest fat.

“When you talk to him, you can see a twinkle in his eye when he’s talking about plants,” Kodama said of Arkin. “He will just light up and you wouldn’t even know he’s sick. He has slowed down over the years, and by all rights he shouldn’t be alive right now.”

Arkin is proud of what he has helped develop at the Covington clinic over the years and knows he won’t be around forever, so he wants to make sure it keeps going after he’s gone. He said that as much as he loves what he does, he would really appreciate some help, maybe from members of the community in Covington or a local garden club.

And it would be a way to continue the work Arkin is so passionate about.

“He does such a great job,” Kodama said. “He wants to care for the patients, and that’s why he’s here. He’s not only concerned about plants, but about the patients.”