Lemon Balm Smiles – The Shoestring Herbalist


I work at a free mobile clinic in town. It’s held in a 31 foot Blue Bird bus. Most of the time, patients show up because they have nowhere else to go. We are just a little urgent care unit that sets up camp in the park every Sunday for a few hours. To those who don’t know us, they have little hope we can help.

Occupy Medical Mobile Clinic - photo by David Sierralupe
Occupy Medical Mobile Clinic – photo by David Sierralupe

We see all kinds of patients. Our prescribers offer them a diagnosis and we, the treatment team, offer supplement options from the community donations. Sometimes the doctor suggests vitamins. Sometimes it’s herbal support. Sometimes the doc asks if we can just give the patient a little bit of our time.

We have a mental health team. They step in and give good quality assistance. Our treatment team is getting good at figuring out how to match people up with community resources. We help people however we can.

Last week, we had a regular patient show up in tatters. This was a sweet natured guy. We had seen him survive all kinds of obstacles from frostbite to dog bites. Life on the streets was hard. This time, he was weary. He tried sleeping in a safe place designed for vets near the train yard but the trains kept him awake all night. His other option was to sleep in a place where he would be exposed to the elements or to aggression. He chose to stay put.

Now he was rattled and out of sync. He needed rest. I offered him a spot to sleep near the clinic where he wouldn’t be disturbed, but he was too shaken by his experiences. He was giving up hope he could endure life on the streets much longer. Despair was keeping his adrenals running.

We sat together on the bench for a while. He cradled his head in his hands. I know what resources are out there and how tapped out they are. I didn’t know what to tell him. I patted him on the shoulder and told him I would be right back. He nodded, not even looking up.

I walked to our bus and opened a drawer. An alphabetized row of donated herbal supplements greeted me. I knew I had nothing to solve this man’s problem in the long run. I just had to deal with the moment. I grabbed a bottle and walked back to the bench.

I offered the bottle to him. He read the label carefully.

“Lemon balm?”

“Yeah,” I said as I sat back down next to him. “It tastes good. I promise It’s in a honey base. I know you like honey. We talked about that before.”

The patient smiled weakly. “What’ll it do for me?”

“We use it for anxiety. It has a lemon flavor, and it just makes you feel good. Lemon balm makes a nice tea. I drink it a lot at home.”

As the Shoestring Herbalist, I prefer lemon balm because it’s an invasive weed in our area. It dominates riparian areas, pushing out other native species that serve as a valuable food source for wildlife. It’s cheap and easy for our patients to use and recognize.  If they want to harvest some themselves, there aren’t any square stemmed mint-imposters that smell like lemon in the area that they could potentially misidentify. It’s a great plant for beginners.

The patient opened the bottle and smelled the contents. As it met with his approval, he put the dropper aside and took a sip directly from the bottle. He replaced the dropper and stuffed the bottle in his pocket.

“What do you think?”

He turned and gave me a big grin. It was the first time today I’d seen a glimpse of his usually bright spirit shine through the dark clouds.

“I like it. I’m going to have some more.”

“Go for it, buddy. Go for it.”


Author’s note: As with all of my posts that involve patient care, names are changed to protect patient identity. I take an extra measure by changing one or two small details in order to further protect patient identity while still preserving the story.

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