Alison Kenneway, Kennebunkport’s director of public health, visits Cynthia Daley, who is in her 80s, in her home on Friday. She and two part-time town nurses offer varied care from foot care clinics to visiting families when they bring home new babies to testing residents for COVID-19. Once a common position in Maine, town officials believe Kennebunkport is the only town in Maine with its own nurse. Michele McDonald/Staff Photographer

KENNEBUNKPORT — Florence Poirier arrived in Kennebunkport on May 1, 1947, ready for her first day as town nurse.

Nurse Poirier, from Biddeford, who had just finished a public health course at Simmons College, was to work six days a week in a new office set up in rooms above a grocery store in Dock Square. She was charged with caring for the town’s infants and schoolchildren, helping with efforts to prevent communicable diseases and tending to other residents of the small coastal town.

Seventy-five years later, Alison Kenneway carries on the town nurse tradition, though these days her duties are a bit different. She visits older residents in their homes to help with wound care, medication and other needs. She offers foot care clinics, visits families when they bring home new babies and tests residents for COVID-19. In the summer, she takes water samples to make sure beaches are safe for swimming.

Once a common position in Maine, town officials now believe Kennebunkport is the only town in Maine with its own nurse. (Portland and Bangor have public health offices that offer a range of services to clients.)

The celebration of the 75th anniversary of Kennebunkport’s town nurse began in January, when selectmen issued a proclamation recognizing the milestone and the 17 nurses who have been “vital resources for the town.”

“These nurses have touched many lives, including residents, town and school staff, and local businesses,” the proclamation read.


The town will continue its celebration on June 16 with a Dock Square concert at Parson’s Field, where there also will be activities, a bounce house and giveaways.


Bridget Broydrick, a volunteer on the Kennebunkport Health Council, which supports the Public Health Office and town nurses, thinks the connections the nurses make with residents are worth celebrating.

“I think it’s something really special,” she said. “It ties into a lot of what I like about living in a small town where you really know your neighbors. It’s not like a stranger coming into your house.”

The town nurse’s office originally was located in rooms above the First National Grocery Store in Dock Square, with Mrs. Herbert Walker Bush providing equipment to furnish the examination rooms. Photo courtesy of Kennebunkport Historical Society

In the early 1940s, the health council hosted occasional clinics, but the timing was always dependent on when, or if, a York County visiting nurse could make it to town. The council wanted a full-time nurse of its own to serve the community from its headquarters in the Old Methodist Church on Maine Street, said Sharon Cummins, the historian at the Kennebunkport Historical Society.

The state passed the Enabling Act in 1943, which provided partial state funding for small towns to pay for full-time public health nurses. While the health council made plans to bring Nurse Poirier to town, the church’s steeple was condemned and the whole building was closed.


The council had to scramble to find a new place for a headquarters, Cummins wrote in a post on the historical society’s Facebook page.

They found rooms to rent for $15 a month above the First National Grocery Store in Dock Square. Mrs. Herbert Walker Bush – this is how women were referred to in those days – provided equipment to furnish the examination rooms. The local chapter of the Red Cross donated $450 toward Poirier’s first-year salary, Cummins said.

The community loan closet was stocked with items any resident could borrow, including bandages, thermometers, a violet ray lamp used for electrotherapy and jackets to warm people’s chests when they had pneumonia, according to town records.


The health council felt the nurse’s main focus should be on the community’s children.

“The function of the public health nurse is to visit the children who have health problems, aid the families in securing competent medical advice and assist in carrying out recommendations made by the physician,” the 1947 town report said.


Nurse Poirier’s duties included checking on expectant mothers, visiting infants monthly during their first year to advise their mothers and providing physical exams to schoolchildren at “well child clinics.” She also did patch tests for tuberculosis and held monthly child health conferences “to help parents recognize better methods of childcare and provide for every child not under the care of a private physician continuous health supervision from birth to school age,” according to the town report.

Florence Poirier, left, was hired in 1947 to serve as Kennebunkport’s first town nurse. Her responsibilities included helping immunize schoolchildren against smallpox, whooping cough, diphtheria, tetanus, measles and polio. Photo courtesy of Kennebunkport Historical Society

Nurse Poirier helped immunize schoolchildren against smallpox, whooping cough, diphtheria, tetanus, measles and polio. For a $1 fee, she would conduct home visits.

Then the Great Fires of 1947 swept across York County, laying waste to villages, farms and houses and reducing Kennebunkport’s Goose Rocks Beach community to a forest of chimney stacks.

Nurse Poirier’s clinics were suspended from October 1947 to January 1948 because of the fires, Cummins said, but every child in town still received a physical exam during the first two years of her tenure.

Nurse Poirier retired in 1961 after 14 years as town nurse. Four others served in that role before 1983, when Judy Worthen was hired. She would go on to become the town’s longest-tenured nurse, retiring in 2017 after 34 years of caring for multiple generations.

“You could ask her to do anything and she would do it. She knew everybody,” Kenneway said. “She was a feisty lady who got her work done.”


Worthen died two years after she retired.

Kenneway, 56, wasn’t familiar with Worthen or the town nurse position when she moved to town 20 years ago. As her children got older and she became a Girl Scout leader, she met Worthen through special projects and learned about the town’s long tradition of employing a nurse.

“I thought it was amazing,” said Kenneway, who was an emergency-room nurse at the time.

Kenneway began working part-time in the public health office in 2014, pitching in when not at her other job. Three years later, she became the town nurse – a position now referred to as public health director – when Worthen retired three years later.


From the start, Kenneway loved the work and the connections she made with neighbors around town. Every day is different, she said, but every day she feels like she’s making a difference in people’s lives.


“Going into everybody’s homes, I really get to know them,” she said. “I get to meet their families, their pets.”

As the average age of residents has gone up, the needs of the community have changed. Much of her work is now focused on the town’s older people.

The office is funded by taxes and donations and all services except foot care are free of charge. A loan closet is still available to residents who need to borrow medical supplies. It is now stocked with walkers, shower chairs, commodes and other adaptive tools to help residents recuperate at home.

Alison Kenneway, Kennebunkport’s director of public health Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The public health department serves about 1,500 patients in their homes each year and another 300 or so during office hours. The staff includes three nurses who share a part-time position added in the 1980s.

These days, Kenneway and the three part-time nurses make home visits to older residents to do such things as check vital signs, change dressings and care for wounds, and organize medications. They refer residents to medical providers, organize activities for seniors, take water samples for the Maine Healthy Beaches program and launch wellness initiatives.

Kenneway visits new babies and their parents, as Nurse Poirier did 75 years ago. When she is notified by the town clerk of a new birth, she brings the family a backpack containing a handmade sweater and hat, books, public health information, and gift cards to a local restaurant and market.


“We make that connection with the new family, hoping if they need any help or have questions, they will come ask us,” she said.


After Broydrick, the health council volunteer, had her second daughter last year, she asked Kenneway to come to the house to weigh her daughter. Broydrick was nervous because she had missed signals when her first daughter had feeding issues, but the pandemic made her reluctant to go out to the doctor’s office.

“It was super comforting to have (the visits) available, especially when I was feeling nervous about exposing a new baby to COVID,” she said.

Broydrick, who works in hospitality, also has seen Kenneway frequently for COVID-19 testing. Kenneway used grant funding to get an Abbott testing machine and test kits. The machine allowed her to offer rapid molecular tests to town employees, first responders, residents and RSU 21 staff and students.

That testing was in high demand and took up much of the nurses’ time before home tests became widely available. During the early months of the pandemic, Kenneway had to suspend in-home visits for most patients because of the risks.


“They became extremely lonely because nobody was going anywhere or seeing anyone,” she said. “It was hard. The personal touch was not there.”

Kenneway and the other nurses called their patients every day until in-home visits could resume.

Recently, Kenneway became a certified foot care nurse, allowing the office to create a monthly foot care clinic.

Kenneway recently visited a woman diagnosed with pneumonia and bronchitis. She wanted the nurse to listen to her lungs and to help her understand her new medications. Kenneway showed her how to use her new inhaler.

As someone who has always wanted to help people, that’s the type of work Kenneway loves.

“We are teachers and teach our community. We are patient advocates and help our seniors navigate the medical world as best we can,” she said. “I like to brighten up our senior citizens’ days with a home visit just to make sure they are doing OK and let them know we are thinking of them.”

Comments are no longer available on this story

filed under: