Nurse overcomes pandemic, family tragedies to achieve lifelong goal

May 8, 2023

It started out as the best day of Mariah Spinola’s life. 

It was December 2017. Mariah, then a nursing student at the University of Colorado, got a job as a nurse’s assistant. The Wareham native called her parents to tell them the good news. That was when she heard that her father, Thomas “Buck” Spinola, Jr., had died of a drug overdose. He was 50 years old.

“It definitely changed my life forever,” said Mariah, now 26 and working in an intensive care unit at Grady Hospital in Atlanta. “I didn’t know how to respond. I was mad at everything for a while.”

Thomas struggled with addiction throughout his life. He relapsed in 2016, after Diana Gomes, his mother and Mariah’s grandmother, died of cancer. Mariah’s other grandmother, Kim, died of a brain aneurysm that same year. Mariah’s grandfather, Thomas Sr., died of a heart attack in 2019. Her uncle Brian died in 2020, and her other grandfather “Papa” Steve died of COVID-19 in 2021. 

“It was grief overload,” Mariah said. “It was hard for me to grieve all of those people. I don’t know if I really got to, because it was one after another.” 

Mariah took an extended break from nursing school. She worked as a waitress in Georgia and at a factory in California. She considered abandoning her dreams of becoming a nurse, but her friends and surviving family members gave her “the strength to keep going.” 

She decided to go back to school, just before the pandemic started. Balancing grief, COVID-19 and the responsibilities of raising her infant son, Mariah became the first person in her family to earn a college degree.

“She did that all on her own,” her mother Alicia Frye said. “She put in the work. She did it.”

Growing up, Mariah and her father were “best friends.” Frye remembers Mariah being “daddy’s girl.” Father and daughter would play softball together, eat lobster rolls on Onset Beach and get ice cream at Perry’s Last Stand on Cranberry Highway. 

“We were really, really close,” Mariah said. “He was still a really great dad, and I think people forget about that when you mention addiction. [They forget] the person behind that.”

From an early age, Mariah was keen on caring for her family. After her “godbrother” Adrien was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, she decided that she wanted to work with people for a living. 

As she grew aware of her father’s struggle with addiction, she would check on him and make sure that he was following his treatment plan.

“She tended to be more of a parent to him than a daughter,” Frye said. 

Diana, who Mariah called Mimi, was the one who brought the family together. As Mariah grew older, the bond between them strengthened. Diana would talk about her childhood and her Cape Verdean roots. She worked as a dialysis technician. It was from her that Mariah learned how to help people in pain. 

“She would teach me everything,” Mariah said. “We would literally have conversations for hours on end. She taught me to always be true to who you are, and never forget where you came from.” 

Mariah never did. She graduated from Falmouth High School in 2015, but deeply missed Wareham. When she moved to Colorado, her father came with her to help set up her dorm and give his final goodbyes. For the first time, Mariah was away from home, in a place where nobody could point to Cape Verde on a map. 

After her father’s death, Mariah tried to attend classes, but she couldn’t focus. 

“People don’t realize how much grief can take over,” she said. “It’s almost like a full-time job, and you don’t get a break from it.” 

She decided to leave school until she was emotionally ready to get her degree.

“I didn’t care about my future,” she said. “I was basically surviving at one point. I lost a lot of my drive.” 

Then, she started to see her father in her dreams. He was angry.

“I think he really wanted me to go back to school and live for him, keep his memory,” she said. “I had to realize that what I had with my dad was very rare, and that I was very fortunate to have it.” 

She met her boyfriend Darrel, who encouraged her to go back to school. She found out she was pregnant with their son weeks before she was accepted into Chamberlain. Everyone told her she was crazy for going to school while raising a baby. 

“[Darrel] told me, ‘Don’t let being a mom stop you,’” she said. “He told me I was strong enough to do both, and he was there with me for every step.” 

She had her son on July 12, 2020, and named him Myziah, a takeoff of her own name. She did schoolwork while she was in the hospital with him. She would attend class with him sleeping on her chest. His bedtime stories were often readings from her nursing textbooks. Whenever she had to study, and take her attention off of him, she felt guilty.

The pandemic reinforced Mariah’s passion for her chosen career, reminding her that nurses “are the backbone” of society.

When she went on stage to receive her diploma, it was “overwhelming.”

“I felt like everything finally paid off,” she said. “I’ve beaten so many odds… I had a baby, I was the child of an addict. It was hard for me to feel proud of myself, and I really felt proud of myself that day.”