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In our regular spotlight on specific jobs, medical herbalist Pamela Spence answers our questions.
How long have you been in your current position? Four years
Describe your route to this position: I started out a long way from herbs. My first degree was in theatre and English literature at the University of Glasgow and I worked in theatre, film and television until I turned 30. I watched so many people in that industry burn out and I felt like I was on the verge of it myself. So I decided to investigate what else I could do. I am a very creative person but I kept getting drawn into administrative type posts - I realised that I was facilitating other people's dreams and I wanted to be creating my own. So I stopped accepting freelance work and resigned from the production company where I was working. I went to a night class at the Scottish School of Herbal Medicine and was so interested that I decided to go for it and enrolled in their BSc course in Herbal Medicine in 2002.
When you started out what was your dream job? I’m not sure that I really knew. I wanted to learn how to feel healthier - and I wasn't getting any answers that were working for me. So I wanted to learn how to do it for myself. Then I wanted to be able to pass that knowledge onto other people, to empower people. I also wanted a job where I could really be me and to be able to express everything that I can do – speaking, writing, teaching and practising herbal medicine.
What’s your dream job now? I love what I do and I want to do more of it. I take great satisfaction from my clinics where I get to meet some really amazing people and help them. I really enjoy working with plants – making tinctures, working in my dispensary, mixing creams for patients. Researching old herbals is something I can spend hours doing and it is really fantastic when modern science adds weight to old traditional uses. I love giving talks and running workshops and seeing people learn, seeing their enthusiasm for plants grow. I write a lot as part of my business – articles for websites or magazines and I love that too. I work with colleagues abroad in places like Uganda helping to teach people safe ways to use natural medicine and that gives me such a buzz. I recently made a series of features for BBC Scotland Online with my colleagues at Redsnappa and PurpleFeather and that was a great experience. The project is called The Scottish Hedgewitch and it brings herbs, writing and film-making together for me. I never thought my old career and my new one would cross over like that.
What’s the best thing about your current job? I get to meet amazing people and I get to learn every day. When I see a patient in clinic I'm excited to meet them, to hear what they have to say and to show them that I really do listen. When I can help someone with a health problem that's really getting them down, or that has been bothering them for a long time, then that feels really good. I feel like I've been able to help.
What’s the worst? Many people don’t understand what a medical herbalist is. They don’t realise that we have training in medical sciences and that we’re a totally different system of medicine to homeopaths. People buy poor quality herbal remedies sometimes and don’t take them properly and then declare that herbal medicine doesn’t work – I find that frustrating. So, I just keep trying to educate people as much as I can. Another down-side is being accused of witchcraft – that’s happened a few times now.
What advice would you offer to someone starting out? The UK Government announced in February 2011 that it is creating a register for medical herbalists and the detail is still being discussed. There are big changes coming in the way that people will be able to access herbal medicines in shops so we have a vital role to play and anyone thinking of starting on this career path now needs to be aware of all the issues.
I’d also say that being in clinic is exhilarating but also tiring – I decided early on that I didn’t want to be in clinic five days a week. I always knew there was more to being a herbalist than just being in a clinic room, or in the dispensary. But you need to be creative – get out into the community, work with local projects, organise herb walks, write articles, make medicines. You need to be passionate about what you do and never tire of learning and finding new ways to talk to people about herbs.
Anything else? I’d urge everyone to learn more about the amazing plants that grow around you and the ways you can use them for food and medicine. There are all kinds of ways to do that – by learning about our own herbal traditions and folk medicine, food foraging and survival skills. This is our natural heritage – it is important we keep it alive.
Read more about Pamela Spence the medical herbalist.