Chances are you’ve never met Agnes Dugas. She’s been too busy.
“We need somebody who speaks Swahili. Do you know anyone?” Agnes, 76, asked Tuesday as a celebration swirled around her outside the Sagamore Health Center in Portland’s low-income Sagamore Village.
The celebration was for Agnes.
We hear a lot of chatter these days about access to health care: Over here, they call “Obamacare” the end of civilization as we know it. Over there, they argue that universal care is the only truly humane antidote to a dizzying health care system. If talk were medicine, we’d all be cured for life.
Then along comes someone like Agnes Dugas, who grew up dreaming of becoming a doctor or a nurse, set aside those aspirations to marry and raise a family and, as of Tuesday, proudly wears an “honorary nursing pin” form the University of Southern Maine’s School of Nursing.
Agnes, you see, doesn’t just talk about how to provide health care to people who can least afford it. As an unpaid volunteer almost every Tuesday for the past 18 years, she’s been doing something about it.
“We are the luckiest people in the world to have this amazing woman in our lives,” said Peggy Akers, a community health nurse who staffs the Sagamore clinic, to a roomful of Agnes’ family, friends and admirers.
It all started back in 1994, when USM’s School of Nursing conducted a community-health needs assessment for Sagamore Village, a 200-family apartment complex operated by the Portland Housing Authority. From that study blossomed the Sagamore Health Center.
Agnes, who once owned the Black Point Inn in Scarborough along with her husband, Norm, had always felt an attraction to healing.
But as one of 10 children, college was not an option for her. And as the years passed and she and Norm had three daughters and two sons, a career in medicine faded into one of life’s paths not taken.
Enter Patricia Geary, then USM’s dean of the College of Nursing and Health Professions, who happened to attend a prayer group with Agnes and told her one day about the new clinic the university had opened on the western edge of Portland.
“So I came,” recalled Agnes. And she never left.
The free clinic, supported by a $32,500 annual grant from Maine Medical Center and located in space donated by the housing authority, operates two days each week. Agnes, Akers and a handful of nursing students run the place on Tuesdays, while Helen Peake-Godin, USM’s associate professor of nursing, and more students take over on Thursdays.
So what, amid all these nurses and nurses-in-training, does Agnes do?
She checks patients’ blood pressure and blood-sugar levels. She organizes packages of medicine, and even delivers some to patients’ doors. She’s painted every wall in the health center and cajoled the housing authority into refinishing the floors, and isn’t above standing on a chair to change the overhead light bulbs in the kitchen.
She even soaks the feet and clips the toenails of patients who can’t do it for themselves.
Most of all, though, Agnes makes people feel at home.
Sil Seneca was a 15-year-old kid growing up across the street from the health center when he met Agnes all those years ago. Back in those days, he recalled, a routine rescue call to Sagamore Village required a police escort – and if you wanted to avoid trouble, you best stayed out of other people’s business.
“But the grandmothers and my mother would tell us young people, ‘These are good people (at the new clinic),’ ” said Seneca, who’s 33 now, owns his own home in Windham and soon will earn his bachelor’s degree in social work from USM. “You knew when you were around these ladies, you were safe.”
(Thus it should come as no surprise that when Seneca and his then-girlfriend thought she might be pregnant, they made a beeline for the health center. There, Agnes and Akers gently informed him he was about to become a father.)
Susan Shaw moved into Sagamore Village right around the time Agnes started volunteering. Shaw, who has bipolar disorder, said it’s hard to put into words what it’s like to be in the middle of a rough stretch and have someone like Agnes knock gently on your door to see if you’re OK.
“You’ve seen me through my ups and downs, at my worst times and my good times,” Shaw told Agnes. “And I just want to thank you for everything you’ve done for me, putting out my pills and just listening to me and being my friend when times are tough. I really appreciate that.”
Then there are the refugees and immigrants, many of whom show up here unable to speak English (hence the need for a Swahili translator) and still traumatized by their previous lives in places where health care takes a back seat to simple survival. When she started volunteering, Agnes recalls, Sagamore Village teemed with newcomers from Southeast Asia.
“They’ve moved on,” she said. “Now it’s a lot of Africans – and I expect someday they’ll move on.”
As she spoke, a young African mother sat quietly with her two children in a corner of the waiting room. Amanulla Habibzai and his wife, Jamila, who came here from Afghanistan, came by for a checkup on Jamila’s recent knee replacement.
“I can’t believe it! We just went to see her at rehab!” gushed Agnes. “Such a strong lady!”
“A good woman,” said Amanulla, motioning toward Agnes. “She is my sister. My family.”
No argument there from the countless nursing students who have passed through this place and now see Agnes not as a volunteer helper, but as a mentor.
Danijela Krsmanovic was only 9 when she moved here from Yugoslavia in 1995. She’s 27 now and, two weeks ago, earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing from USM.
Krsmanovic called Agnes, with whom she worked at the health center last summer, “a role model for nursing students everywhere.”
“Being part of this community means a lot to me,” said Krsmanovic, fighting back tears. “Agnes doesn’t judge, she doesn’t ask questions, she just helps people. She’s doing the little things that count – whether it’s taking someone to the doctor’s office or walking them home. It’s those little things that change people’s lives.”
Tuesday’s festivities – the honorary nursing pin, a Salute to Senior Service Award from Home Instead Senior Care, an actual crown hand-woven by Akers out of freshly picked forsythia – left Agnes a little shaky and a lot speechless. No matter.
The woman’s work speaks for itself.
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: