East West Free Clinic herbalists Maureen Flash, Erin Massengale, Michael McEvoy, Beverly Jennings.
I have always had the desire to be of service to the poor and indigent in our community, but was never quite sure how to incorporate that into my life, given all my other commitments as both an herbalist, acupuncturist, author, teacher, formulator, gardener, and musician. I was afraid of beginning something that I might not be willing, or able, to follow through with. Then, at the American Herbalists Guild annual herbal symposium, I met some friends and colleagues who I respect; 7Song and Lorna Mauney-Brodek of www.herbalista.org, who inspired me to try to create such an offering with my students in our local community.
In July 2014, Lesley and I began providing free monthly herb classes for local East West students. Most of these students were at the foundation or intermediate level when we started. We began with an in-depth study of pulse diagnosis, then tongue diagnosis, the 10 questions, TCM theory, and other important facets of Planetary Herbalism. By design, these classes were to prepare them for practice in a free clinic where they would not only serve the health needs of the poor and underprivileged in our community, but also gain valuable clinical skills and experience – a win-win situation for sure.
The result is the East West Herbal Free Clinic, headed up by myself and Lesley as teachers and mentors, made up of a number of inspired and great local East West Herb Students living in near proximity. So far, with two Saturday morning sessions under our belts, a group of 10 or 12 of us saw 26 patients within a two-and-a-half-hour time period. We are quickly learning how to work together as a choir of herbalist-healers. So far it seems that everyone who came to work with us on a one-on-one basis received the healing that was possible and that they were ready for.
I’m very proud of each and every one of my local Santa Cruz herb students and colleagues, and I want to honor, mention and introduce them to you each by name as founders of this noble collective endeavor. We are:
My wife, Lesley Tierra, without whom I don’t think I would be able to have done even half of what we’ve accomplished together; professional AHG members and East West School of Planetary Herbology graduates Beverly Jennings and Linda Vaughan; and foundation student Dee Lewis, who stepped up to reorganize the California Greater Bay Area chapter of the American Herbalists Guild. The team of students currently attending the classes and clinic also include Michael McEvoy, Maureen Flash, Kathryn Grant, Erin Massengale, Larry Nakanashi, Michelle Schurig, Evan Small, and Shelley Swapp.
We have quickly bonded together. If there is a need, such as filling gelatin capsules with Triphala powder the night before, we all soon learn that it’s already done or in process. The same occurs when we are working together in a relatively small space with patients at the homeless center; individuals just step up and do whatever is needed.
We operate together in a spirit of respect, friendly camaraderie and gratitude for each other as we learn to accept and appreciate who we each really are. Our dynamic bears out my experience that the best part of being an herbalist, for me, has always been to hang out and be with other herbalists. Herbalists come in all sorts of unique styles, political and religious persuasions. Bridges of mutual respect can transcend any differences, and these people can be brother and sister herbalists. As my fellow herbalist sister Rosemary Gladstar has said repeatedly, ‘It is the plants that unite us all.’
On a Wing and a Prayer: The Clinic is Launched
I set Saturday, Jan. 31, 2015, as our “ready or not” launch of the East West Herbal Free Clinic at the Homeless Services Center in Santa Cruz, hopefully establishing a model that will be duplicated by hundreds of enrolled students and graduates scattered throughout the United States and some foreign countries.
To seed our free clinic pharmacy, I gathered expired herbal patents that I had accumulated from years of over-purchasing products for my clinic – little did I know how useful these would prove to be. These products were perfectly good and potent, but carried an expiration date based on legal requirements. Shelley Swapp tirelessly encapsulated over a thousand capsules of several powdered herbal mixtures and simples I provided. I gave a ‘lead sheet’ describing briefly the uses and indications of each herbal product to Maureen Flash, who, after a whirlwind evening of sorting and categorizing with Beverly Jennings and Dee Lewis, carefully took on the job of researching and listing indications for added and current products, cataloguing and organizing them all into portable plastic boxes so thoughtfully and generously donated by Beverly, so that we could easily transport them back and forth from the homeless center.
How miraculous it seems that all the crucial details worked themselves out!
When January 31 arrived, I was up at 4 a.m. worrying about how the whole thing would go, wondering if I was about to throw a group of lambs into the lion’s den. With only five Saturday classes I gave as preparation, was it reasonable to expect that we could we pull this off? Would these students be ready to actually start seeing clients – especially people with such tremendous physical, mental and spiritual health handicaps? Could we really help people who barely have shelter and food to feel better? I wondered how responsive our clients would be to such care.
All those feelings dissipated within the first hour as I breathed a sigh of relief and quietly said to myself, “Thank God, it’s happening and it really seems to be working.” Within the first five minutes, one problem was solved – there was no lack of clients who signed up to work one-on-one with members of our team.
We started out with one or two of us walking out onto the homeless center grounds to introduce ourselves. We offered to sit and listen to their health complaints, and assist with herbal, dietary, bodywork and other healing therapies. These were given free of charge, as well as free homemade bowls of delicious soup and warm tea. People responded positively.
As an aside, it is appalling to see the number of meds that many of these people have been given. Considering that alone, it is a wonder that any of them could ever get well! However, it is also amazing that despite this, even the simplest, most common herbs and healing can make such a difference for some at least.
We held our second East West Herbal Free Clinic on February 28 and, despite the rain, everything went even more smoothly. It feels like we might have hit our stride. Everyone showed up on time, with food, tea, freshly capsuled organic herbal powders, an organized pharmacy of donated patent herbal formulas, tinctures and salves. Since I’m looking to use pre-made herbal formulas and herbal combinations with the broadest application, I brought tinctures of Swedish bitters, which I made for the center. Swedish bitters seemed to me to be a good contribution, along with Triphala, and capsules of dandelion, burdock, turmeric and ginger. These kinds of ready-made formulas with broad applicability work really well in such a setting.
Dee got a kick out of my referring to what we we’re doing as ‘guerilla herbalists,’ because, like a small squadron of revolutionaries, we are try to move in, get set up as quickly as possible, do our fun work and then, just as quickly, tear it all down and leave the place as if we were never there.
The Gifts of Giving
I discovered my calling as an herbalist and healer while living in a commune called Black Bear in the remote mountains of Northern California. This was an amazing collective, including a group of students learning and practicing acupuncture and herbs. It was then that I learned two important lessons: that we learn best while doing, and that it is in giving responsibly that we receive.
Even after only two Saturday mornings at the free clinic, we’re definitely gaining a greater perspective on life and healing, and a respect for the power and benefit for what we have to offer to relieve even some of the misery and suffering of our community brethren. It may be a cliché, but I’m sure we experience true benefit and gratitude as we come face to face with individuals who for various reasons are less fortunate than ourselves. It is gratifying to experience how we make these people ‘almost’ happy, given their pitiable circumstances, with our gifts of healing presence, herbs and food.
I hope to set to rest the all too familiar complaint of students that “there are no patients.” The ‘Way of Herbs’ is first and foremost a spiritual calling before it should ever be considered as a profession. If you are looking for patients, do as the great 16th century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper did: take to the streets.
We are presently expanding our pharmacy, making tinctures and other preparations, all projects I require students who enroll in the course to do within the first 12 lessons. Soon we will have a pharmacy housing about 60 herbs and formulas. It is the student’s job to learn about each of these herbs as much on their own as possible. Then they will acquire the skill of composing custom blends for each patient while drawing on an assortment of foundational products and formulas such as Triphala, guggul and Swedish bitters.
I told our team that as we get more organized, and grow individually, we could look to the future to setting ourselves up in other venues such as farmer’s markets and fairs during the warmer seasons, and perhaps have weekly clinics where we all don’t need to be present at every session.
Thanks to the opportunity for practice presented by the free clinic, before they know it, by darn, my students will be full-fledged herbalists in no time at all. After all, as herbalists and healers, we are only ever reconnecting with our ancestral roots – ‘remembering’ as it were, ancient ways of healing and care that I believe exist within our own DNA code and that of the plants we work with.
Find the joy in herbal healing!
Are you interested in starting an herbal free clinic in your community? We are happy to share whatever we learn as we pioneer this worthy project. I also suggest you look into the work of Lorna Mauney-Brodek, herbalist 7Song at the Northeast School of Botanical Medicine and the Occupy Medical Clinic in Eugene, Oregon.