Farewell to the Free Clinic

August 21 marks my last day as a clinical herbalist at the Olympia Free Herbal Clinic. After 5 years of volunteer work, my departure conjures an array of emotions: excitement, sadness, and contradictory ones like guilt with concurrent relief.

I’m leaving the free clinic to engage in premedical studies at the University of Washington. I’ll still be available as a clinical herbalist at my own practice, Goldroot Botanical Medicine, and will continue to see clients who I’ve established a relationship with at OFHC on a sliding scale basis. (Sliding scale is available to all my clients.) To help focus my efforts, I want to bring everything under one roof. Working between 2 different practices is hard, and it leaves me feeling scattered as a practitioner.

Group practices present distinct challenges. One client may see several herbalists, each who hold their own philosophy and methodology. Sometimes it matches up, other times it doesn’t. Sometimes clients get the benefit of multiple perspectives, other times their herbal support protocol is frenzied and contradictory. Other practitioners also have different methods of making notes, writing formulas, and presenting cases, and you may not always have the time to thoroughly evaluate everything. This is compounded by the rushed nature of free clinic work, where there are scores of people waiting in line, and you have to move briskly. OFHC has always been a walk-in clinic. So during some 2-hour shifts I saw 6 people, others none. I’d never know if I’d be racing for the whole of my clinic shift, or finding ways to occupy 2 hours.

Free clinic work has its own difficulties and limitations, and these are (unsurprisingly) due to funding constraints. The needed tinctures and supplies are often out of stock. This leads to creative reformulating, clever substitutions, and other similar acrobatics. It’s fun and problem-solvy at first, but then it gets old. As a practitioner, you want to be able to rely on your apothecary stock. The need to improvise with bottle labels, client forms, and other office essentials also grows tiresome over time.

Organizing a free clinic as a group is also uniquely challenging. For years, a group of 5-7 herbalists (myself included) organized the clinic, medicine garden, annual conference, continuing community education, and interns/volunteers by consensus. We valued group collaboration and felt like it was an important approach to community organizing. But it didn’t work out well for us. As the project grew in size and scope, consensus-based decision-making was exhausting, time consuming, and inefficient. The feeling of chaos and ambiguity was ever-present. It eventually drained everyone, and one by one, collaborators withdrew from the project. This organizational fatigue and burnout was also driven by ill-fitting roles. To elaborate: we were a group of herbalists, but were trying to retrofit ourselves into being organizational administrators, fundraisers, and event planners. We should have recruited people with expertise in these areas to make the personal energy expenditures sustainable. At the time, several organizers didn’t feel comfortable with relinquishing any control of the organization, even with our newly-recruited Board of Directors. Feeling the obligation of community service, we continued to drive ourselves into burnout. We eventually realized that a consenses model was not serving the organization any longer and broke out into departments. But it was too late: organizers and volunteers were dropping like flies. The organization was already clearly in a state of adrenal burnout (if I can be so anthropomorphic). We experimented with several methods of alleviating this weighted stress. One method was distributing small contract labor fees to core organizers. It was godawful to negotiate this program (over the course of a year) and did absolutely nothing to remedy burnout.

Despite these hurdles, the clinic remained functioning, bolstered by the support of the annual Dandelion Seed Conference. Though organizers were struggling with the bouyancy of the project, more clients were visiting the free clinic. We were getting more referrals than ever, and receiving exquisite feedback from clients. Everytime I would leave the clinic, I always felt genuinely better than when I entered. I was proud that this little community clinic had dug its heels in the sand and stayed open for 7 years. The best reward was the feedback I received from clients, whose lives had been transformed through simple, accessible herbal and nutritional methods. From the young man who got sick every 2 weeks and has not experienced any illness in nearly a year, to the TBI client who managed his severe anxiety with skullcap and california poppy, it’s incredible to see the change that’s possible with botanical methods. I live for it.

I will greatly miss seeing such a range of clients, because my private practice is (in some ways) not as accessible as the free herbal clinic. I offer sliding scale consultations, but this requires a conversation between me and the prospective client, who may or may not be comfortable doing so. I also need to charge for the herbal products themselves, as I have no alternative funding other than consultations and sales.

I feel guilty stepping away and withdrawing my support from this incredible community resource. I leave knowing that I leave 2 alread-busy herbalists with my client load. But this guilt–I can’t leave because they need me–doesn’t serve anyone. It not only hinders me, it disempowers those around me. It projects a neediness onto my clients and former collaborators. They don’t need me; they’ll do just fine and likely flourish without me.

I will appreciate my reliable apothecary stock, the steady pace of seeing clients by appointment (as opposed to walk in), my DevonThink database for client file management instead of bulky paper files, and getting compensated for my significant time and energy investments.

This isn’t to discourage anyone from free clinic organizing. If you have the skills to work with people, I highly recommend starting one in your community. You can use models like OFHC, or the Herbalista Herb Bus, or Occupy Medical. There are so many ways to do it. Just know yourself and your motivations, limits, and working style.

I’m going to be drafting on a piece on free clinic organizing. What would you like to know? You can leave your question in the comment section below.

About Author

Renée A. Davis MA RH is a designer and educator in botanical and mycological medicine. Her training began at the Pratt Institute of Art and Design in New York City and concluded in biomedical sciences at the University of Washington. She currently directs research and development for a nutraceutical mushroom company in the Pacific Northwest.


  • Kelly Ann Atterberry
    August 18, 2015 at 3:53 pm

    Could you tell me more about DevonThink? I am seeking something just like this for client information management, but have never used DevonThink. Which version do you use/recommend?

    Thanks for sharing your departure story, that is a tough choice, but sounds like the right choice.

    Sincerely, Kelly Ann

    • Renee Davis
      August 18, 2015 at 4:13 pm

      Hey Kelly,

      You can check out DevonThink here– it’s really a fabulous tool and I use it daily. I also discuss it here on How I Work, along with other productivity tools and database/reference management techniques.

  • Marie-Josée Vivier
    August 18, 2015 at 9:14 pm

    Thank you very much for your article. I found it very touching. It felt right in time, because we are thinking about opening a community clinic in our area, in Montreal but we’re in the process of thinking about how can this be done. I will look at the 3 links you gave and also I would be interested into receiving complementary info if you write on organizing a free clinic. It is so important to take care of ourselves as herbalist, your article brought me this tough about our project, I will keep it in mind. Thanks again for your sharing.
    Best regards,

  • Laurent Michel
    August 20, 2015 at 11:43 am

    I have been interested in the idea of a free clinic for many years. I don’t think there is much information available about how to do it and with your experience and knowledge you could write and share all your knowledge on how to set up and maintain a free herbal clinic. That would be very helpful.


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