PORTLAND — Peggy Akers said it is her good fortune to have made a career of aiding people in distress as a nurse practitioner.
“We are the lucky ones,” Akers said April 5 during one of her volunteer shifts at the Portland Community Free Clinic. “We get to touch people, to hug people, to hear people.”
Last month, Akers, 71, was awarded the American Association of Nurse Practitioners 2018 State Award for Excellence for Maine, a capstone for a career approaching 50 years.
“I’m really touched my colleagues nominated me,” she said. “As you come to the end of our career in a way, you feel sort of grateful to have been part of this whole journey.”
Akers has been with the city’s Public Health Division since 1995, working with Healthcare for the Homeless, Preble Street Teen Clinic and in three different locations for the STD Clinic. In the summer, she volunteers at the Seeds of Peace camp in Otisfield.
She has worked in Lewiston, serving homeless and new Mainers, and in San Francisco and Michigan. Akers became a nurse practitioner in San Francisco in 1982, after earning her nursing degree about a decade earlier from Columbia University.
Once a protester against the Vietnam War, her years at Columbia were interrupted by serving as an intensive care Army nurse in Vietnam. She also took part in medical outreach efforts in villages.
She spent childhood summers on Cliff Island, and the life there drew her, her husband and children back.
Bob Barrett, a nurse who works with Akers at the clinic, said the award barely touches on what Akers means to the community.
“We ask our volunteers for a once-a-month commitment,” Barrett said April 6. “She is often here more than that. She has this bottomless energy, I don’t know where it comes from.”
Akers will attend the awards ceremony in Denver in late June, but is uncomfortable as the focus of attention.
“I feel so honored, I want to represent all the nurse practitioners who are so wonderful in the state of Maine,” she said.
In Maine, nurse practitioners are allowed to practice independently without supervision from a physician, to diagnose conditions and prescribe medications. But an independent practice was never Akers’ goal; it was always community service.
“When I was in nursing school at Columbia … we were always told ‘you live in your community, you have to give back to your community,’” she said.
The circumstances her patients face can be challenging; the results are not always happy. At the Free Clinic, there is intimacy Akers treasures, she said.
“You can get an hour with a new patient and know about their families and their lives and their barriers to health care,” she said.
Trying to provide care can be daunting and frustrating, but Akers said removing barriers to care keeps her going.
“It is more like grieving,” she said. “Grieving for people who don’t have the opportunity for health care everyone should have.”
Barrett said Akers’ unceasing cheer and determination make their marks.
“It is great to have her around as inspiration,” he said. “It is like, here is the bar. It is good for all of us, even if I don’t know if I’ll reach the bar.”
Award-winning nurse practitioner Peggy Akers, center, has had a 50-year career in health care, including volunteering at the Portland Community Free Clinic with Bob Barrett, left, and Leslie Nicoll.