Revival House: the Pastures Retreat
Five years ago, Bridget Ford Hughes was on the fast track, traveling to Mustique Island and the South of France as personal massage therapist for designer Tommy Hilfiger and working with glitterati like Mick Jagger and Pierce Brosnan. Yet she still remembers vividly the bleak, cold winter day in February nearly four years ago when she received a phone call from her doctor telling her she had a malignant breast tumor.
“Unfortunately, you ...” Hughes recalls with palpable intensity, then pauses to take a breath. After hearing the first two words, she had collapsed to her knees, sobbing on the floor. “I didn’t hear anything else after that.”
Now, Hughes is on a mission. “Having breast cancer changed me,” she says. “I have a different mindset now…. Life isn’t about material things or what’s ‘in.’ It’s about, How do you want to make a difference in the world?” And she’s determined to make her mark.
A commanding presence at five-feet-ten-inches, standing tall in her state-of-the-art kitchen, her cobalt-blue eyes intent as she speaks with purpose, Hughes has a fervor and tenacity that contribute to the confidence with which she speaks. She openly acknowledges a few “Type A” perfectionist tendencies, but, she says, “I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore.” When a health crisis happens, “You prioritize very quickly,” she asserts.
It was December 2005, just months before her diagnosis, and Hughes was shuffling between Lenox, Massachusetts, and her apartment in Manhattan’s East Village. Sculptor Jonathan Prince, now her husband, was living in the Hamptons, and the two were deciding where to settle. “When Jonathan asked if I wanted to live in the Hamptons or the Berkshires, I said, ‘Oh, the Berkshires, absolutely,’” enthuses Hughes, clad in slim indigo jeans and a navy striped boatneck top with summer sandals. “I’ve always felt so at home here,” she adds. “It’s a very accepting place—life here is authentic and genuine. It’s like a small extended family.”
Hughes and Prince transformed part of their 20,000-square-foot home located on a former dairy farm in Southfield, Massachusetts, into work spaces for their respective passions. They spent a year designing: Hughes conceptualized her gym and spa room; Prince configured his sculpture studio and showroom. Upon moving into the converted barn five years ago, they renovated the Quonset hut—a metal-clad structure with a rounded roof—attached to the house. The one-hundred-and-eighty-foot-long structure was a “raw” hayloft with a dirt floor.
“Usually it’s much easier to tear down something like this and start from scratch,” Prince mentions, “but we didn’t do that,” he says with a chuckle. The project was completed a year later in 2007.
That same year, Hughes was lying in bed after her mastectomy, weak, barely able to catch her breath, unable to move her arms above her head. It was in stark contrast to the vibrant, constantly-on-the-move Hughes, a lifelong fitness enthusiast, Pilates instructor, and former massage therapist at Canyon Ranch in Lenox.
Instead of succumbing to self-pity, however, her fighting spirit kicked in and she said to herself: “When I get out of this bed, I’m not going to take anything for granted again.”
Hughes decided to open up her house as a retreat space to inspire other women coping with cancer to tap into their inner strength and emerge uplifted and energized. “I wanted to create a nurturing, life-celebrating place for women to come together and tell their stories and exchange information,” she says. “It’s what I was longing for during my recovery.”
After her two-and-a-half-year struggle with cancer—which included lumpectomies, a double mastectomy, and breast reconstructive surgery—Hughes founded the Pastures in 2009.
Now forty-six years old, Hughes has melded her knowledge of the body-mind connection with a passion for helping others. Even as a child, says Hughes, she harbored a compassionate streak coupled with a no-nonsense attitude and a hard-working nature. Raised with three older brothers by a single mother in Chevy Chase, Maryland, Hughes learned early the importance of diligence. “When I was growing up, I was always working,” she recalls, as she tells of starting a small silver-polishing business for neighborhood residents as a teenager.
That initiative was once again evidenced while living in New York City on September 11, 2001. The 9/11 tragedy spurred her to action. Hughes garnered her resources and partnered with the New York City-based Swedish School for Massage (now known as the Swedish Institute), from which she graduated at the top of her class, organizing and coordinating one hundred massage therapists to work free of charge in fire stations. “I wanted to do what I could,” she explains. “Three months later, when I was working a stint on Mustique Island, I was still calling therapists, assigning them to locations.”
In addition to spearheading retreats at the Pastures, Hughes maintains a private practice in massage, exercise, and personal training, and is a certified practitioner of Ayurvedic medicine. Often, she notes, service in a job isn’t necessarily something on which we place a high value. But service is “really about offering yourself selflessly to another—it’s known as seva in Sanskrit—and in some cultures it’s considered the highest honor one can attain,” Hughes says. No doubt, seva is part of her personal philosophy, a common thread tying together her work and aspirations.
The Pastures is currently one-of-a-kind, filling a unique niche and not based on any previous model. “There really is no other program like it,” Hughes states matter-of-factly. While other support groups meet weekly for an hour or so, the Pastures offers a total-immersion experience, where cancer survivors leave behind daily life for a day or two to concentrate completely on renewal and rejuvenation. The fifteen participants at each weekend retreat held on the property—complete with a heated lap pool, sauna, massage room, and awe-inspiring views—discover tools for healthy, enriched living.
Hughes’s programs focus largely on nutrition and exercise. “Diet contributes to the success of the body working at its best potential,” she remarks, “and I wanted to include it, because it’s an important component to maintaining resilience.” Along with a nutritionist, she invites a professional chef to demonstrate vegetarian cooking techniques and tips and to teach which foods contain high concentrations of antioxidants (known to ward off cancer) and promote high immune-system functioning. Other invited guest presenters include experts in yoga, dance-movement, personal empowerment, writing, and art therapy.
Iona Smith is one such presenter. A Berkshire-based yoga instructor whose family has a history of breast cancer, she finds teaching at the Pastures especially rewarding. There’s a strong sense of community that’s formed within only a few days, she observes. “It’s beautiful to see… there’s a deep gratefulness and self-love that exists among everyone.” A woman going through treatment, Smith continues, can easily feel disconnected from her body; yoga can help her get back in touch with herself and her body’s sensations. “When you’re in touch with your body and able to ‘be’ in the present moment, that’s when healing takes place.”
It’s already reaping positive results. Suky Werman, who attended the 2009 winter retreat and is a gallerist and co-owner with her husband, Tom, of Stonover Farm, a bed and breakfast in Lenox, believes that the Pastures was a key piece to “completing” her cycle of healing. Even though Werman had finished the physical treatments for breast cancer and was cancer-free for a year before attending the retreat, she wasn’t done “in her head,” as she puts it.
“I realized I still had more work to do,” Werman says. “I had never sat down with a group of women and talked about it all.” At the retreat, “you’re in the moment with the cancer: you think about it, feel it, and talk about strategies for wellness and positive thinking.” Even walking the property is life-affirming: “It’s all about healing, process, and being.” Werman expresses gratitude for Hughes’s endeavor as she gushes, “She’s doing us all such a great service.”
This year, according to the American Cancer Society, approximately 207,000 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer. During the treatment and recovery process, it’s often difficult to obtain specific recovery information, because surgical outcomes vary and may be unpredictable. Some aspects of rehabilitation can fall through the cracks. “I want to fill that gap,” Hughes says. “Most women leave the hospital after surgery and then are left on their own.”
For example, she says, many people don’t know that there are particular arm exercises and movements to improve range of motion after a mastectomy. Prior to her treatments, Hughes considered herself in excellent shape, “but even with everything I knew and my background, I still wasn’t prepared for the aftereffects of surgery,” she recalls.
Hughes admits that her work feels like a calling. Over the years, she’s searched for signposts to direct her next steps. As she puts it, “I’m very aware of the coincidences that aren’t really ‘coincidences.’” What matters most is “how you choose to use an experience,” Hughes says. She views her situation as an opportunity—a new beginning of sorts—to facilitate connection and well-being in a life-enhancing setting, sharing what she and other women have learned through the journey. “It’s an honor and an enormous gift to be working with women in this capacity,” she says.
“The Pastures is clearly her labor of love. Ensuring that guests feel comfortable is of utmost importance to Bridget and is reflected in every detail of the program,” notes Sara Marcy of Boston, Massachusetts, who made the drive to the Berkshires to participate in the spring 2010 gathering. “I haven’t found another program similar to the Pastures,” says the thirty-three-year-old business owner, who was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago. “It’s a very special place and a special support system that stays with you longer than a weekend.” Marcy credits the eclectic combination of programs with making a difference to long-term health. “Just having the exposure gives me peace of mind.”
Looking to the future, Hughes is exploring collaborations with medical providers, and plans are in the works to secure outreach efforts in the Boston and New York City regions. “Women from all over could benefit from the programs,” Hughes affirms. She’s already teamed with the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation to establish the Pastures Fund, available to area women for use toward alternative therapies not covered under insurance, such as massage and acupuncture; Pastures retreats; or community education. (Entrepreneur Jane Iredale, president and founder of Iredale Mineral Cosmetics in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, is a recent contributor.)
It’s not a stretch to say that cancer is both the worst and the best thing that ever happened to Hughes. After everything, she says, “I would have felt gypped without the drive to do this. It’s been a metamorphosis for me.” Her gaze steady, she says with conviction: “I’ve learned that living is giving.” And Hughes certainly knows how to do plenty of both. [NOV/DEC 2010]
Robin Fasano is a writer who divides her time between a Swiss chalet in the woods of the Berkshires and the Connecticut coast of Fairfield County. Her last story for Berkshire Living was “Star Struck” in the October 2010 issue.
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