When our clinic was only a few months old, we operated out of a tent in the park. Most patients saw a couple of doctors and nurses in a tent as a charming idea. It was not threatening. Some patients came by out of curiosity if nothing else. When Grace stopped by, her experiences had taught her to fear any resemblance of institutions. She stood outside the tent, holding her pregnant belly which ached with false labor. We invited her in, but she refused. My heart melted as her haunted eyes darted from face to face. She angled towards me perhaps sensing the safety of grandmotherly presence.
I asked her if she wanted to sit on the park bench across from the tent and chat. I shared an orange from my lunch bag, which Grace ate eagerly. I asked her what I could do to help. The story she shared with me was complex.
Grace ran away from an abusive home from an early age and had been living by the scrap of her teeth for five years. She had a baby two years earlier, and like many newborns to the unhoused, the state took and placed into foster care soon after the birth. Losing this baby drove her to the depths of depression until a fellow traveler, now her boyfriend, helped her regain clarity. They became pregnant and she was presently in the fifth month. They wanted to find a way to start life again and be a family.
Grace lived on the streets. Local shelters didn’t have places for families to live together. Men live in one bunkhouse. Women and children live in another. Grace found the nights terrifying. Her boyfriend held her every night as she relived her past trauma and stroked her hair until she could sleep again. Sleep and comfort was what she needed.
“It isn’t ideal but at least,” she said, “we’re together.”
Last week, the contractions had started. The stress of her life style was triggering Braxton Hicks (false labor). Grace was terrified. She had experienced false labor with her first child too and feared that reporting it would bring the unwanted attention of the authorities. She had no caregiver, no home, and no support besides her young boyfriend. She was cold, hungry and sure she would lose yet another baby. Despite her fear the hospital would take her child, she went to the hospital. They were not as helpful as she’d hoped. Her fear outweighed her pain.
I knew I was on shaky ground. She had allowed the doctor to sit within earshot of us but any move or word from him terrified her. Her stress load was making things worse. The standard advice for relieving Braxton Hicks contractions is to relieve stress in ways that require a home or at least a bathtub. She needed to relax, pour herself a cup of tea and put her feet up. Living on the run did not allow her access to any of these luxuries.
I suggested drinking as much water as she comfortably could and adding raspberry to her diet. Raspberry leaf is a nutritive uterine toner. Sometimes women with minor false labor symptoms can experience the opposite effect, but I knew if Grace’s contractions were strong enough to send her to the hospital, raspberry could be her only friend.
I had a bottle of raspberry tincture in my stock of herbs, which I shared with her gladly. She took it and eyed it suspiciously. I handed her a glass of water in which to try a dropper full. She took one sip and licked her lips cautiously.
“It’s not bad,” she proclaimed finishing the rest of the glass with gusto.
I gave her directions for proper tincture use. She listened, nodding gravely. I made a few more suggestions but could tell that she was ready to leave. I suggested she get an exam from one of the doctors in the tent. I even offered to stay with her if she wanted, but she waved me off. She was willing to accept a refillable water bottle and a donation of prenatal vitamins. She didn’t trust us well enough to accept anything else. Then she bolted.
The next week, Grace was back again. She asked for more raspberry tincture. I gave her another bottle. She rolled it back and forth in her hand for a minute before looking up to meet my eye.
“Thank you. You really helped me. No more false labor! This stuff works.”
I nodded. I offered the exam again, but she frowned. The system had chewed on her pretty bad. It would take more than a bottle of tincture to cure those wounds. I had to be grateful for my chance to help even in a small way. This little herb had opened her heart to the notion that some people can be trusted. On its shoulder’s rested the base of a longer, more integrated relationship with the rest of the staff which would eventually result in getting Grace and her growing family the help they needed. Raspberry had come through for us all.
Note: The Clinic Memoirs are based on real experiences from Occupy Medical clinic, a free, integrated health clinic that serves patients primarily, but not exclusively, in Lane County, Oregon since 2011. The names of the patients and a few personal details are changed to protect patient identity.