OLD ORCHARD BEACH – Children inherit many traits and tendencies from their parents. Katie Spagnolo, a 13- year-old girl from Old Orchard Beach, seems to have inherited her mother’s strong sense of determination and willingness to fight for what she believes is right – a lesson that has been reinforced for over a decade by her father.
Rick Spagnolo and Randi Dunn decided to settle down after the 45-year-old biker from Connecticut met and fell in love with Dunn, a self-proclaimed free spirit and someone who loved the seaside town of Old Orchard Beach.
They moved into a small house in a quiet neighborhood and Spagnolo took a job as a factory worker in a Biddeford plant. Dunn settled into the home and worked as a freelance writer for the local newspaper and several motorcycle magazines and, within a few months, the couple found out they were going to have a baby.
“I was going to be a father,” Spagnolo said. “We talked about getting married, but with everything going on, we decided to wait until after she was born.”
At first, the pregnancy went as expected and the couple prepared their home for the new arrival, but at time went on, Dunn became increasingly uncomfortable.
“She said she had this indigestion, or burning,” Spagnolo said, as he pulled his long gray hair into a ponytail.
Even 13 years later, the now 58-year-old man carries the pain of those days in the creases on his face.
“We went to see quite a few doctors, but because of the pregnancy she couldn’t have X-rays,” he said.
Eventually, the couple went to see an internist and gastroenterologist who was able to insert a probe into Dunn’s esophagus to try and determine the cause of her pain and discomfort.
“When they pulled back the piece, they had part of a tumor,” he said. “They told me it was cancer. It was malignant.”
Dunn and Spagnolo consulted with doctors and specialists, and finally were told Dunn had pancreatic cancer – and it was serious. Treatment for the disease would be difficult and complicated because of the pregnancy. Whatever went into the bloodstream of the mother would be in the baby’s bloodstream too.
Dunn decided she would not do anything to harm her unborn child, and both she and Spagnolo agreed treatment would come only after the birth of their baby. The pregnancy and the complications continued.
Nearing the end of her 34th week of pregnancy, Dunn was having difficulty breathing and there were signs that the baby’s heartbeat was becoming erratic.
She, her doctors and Spagnolo were concerned about the days ahead.
“The doctors said they wanted to do exploratory surgery to see what the problem was and they would take the baby,” he said.
In early February 1999, Dunn was admitted to Maine Medical Center in Portland and the surgery was scheduled.
“When the operation was over the doctor came out and explained he had good news and bad,” Spagnolo said. “The good news was that the baby was fine and healthy, but (Dunn) had a large malignant tumor on her pancreas.”
Trying to balance the two pieces of news, Spagnolo asked the surgeon about a diagnosis and what Dunn’s options were. He was told the type of cancer was especially aggressive and treatment options were limited.
Spagnolo said Dunn was determined to fight the cancer and made an appointment for radiation therapy.
A few days later, it was time to leave the hospital in Portland. Spagnolo decided he would take his new daughter, Katie, and her mom home to the beach. He would care for them both.
In April 1999, two months after Katie was born, “The doctors finally came clean and told me she was terminal,” Spagnolo said.
For the next four months, the family lived quietly together, in a house that was supposed to hold three, until Dunn lost her fight with the disease.
Now there were just two and it has been that way ever since.
Katie did not know her mother in the traditional sense, but because of her father, she has learned of her strength and resolve, a trait that she displays to all who meet her.
Growing up, Katie learned to love a good story and has written articles for her school newspaper. She has interviewed elected officials and even spoke with Gov. Paul LePage when he came to this area as part of his Capital For a Day program.
An avid musician, Katie has sung the national anthem at The Ballpark near her home and at the State House in Augusta. As part of the opening ceremonies for the 2011- 2102 legislative sessions, she was asked to go to Augusta and sing. What Katie didn’t tell her father about was her plan to dedicate the performance to her mother.
After the song was finished, Rep. George Hogan (D-Old Orchard Beach) surprised her father when he explained to the assembled officials who the singer was and that she was dedicating this event to her mom.
Spagnolo said he has tried to teach his daughter to work hard for those things that are important in life.
“I don’t want her to learn that you can’t fight against city hall or for those things that are important,” he said.
Late this spring, Katie continued to fight for something that was important to her – her education. As part of a class project at Loranger Middle School, she and several of her classmates sent a persuasive letter to Patrick Phillips, the superintendent of Regional School Unit 23 that includes Saco, Old Orchard Beach and Dayton.
The students asked for a variety of things, but in Katie’s letter, she specifically asked the superintendent if she would be allowed to go to school at Thornton Academy.
About a week ago, Katie received a letter back from the superintendent’s office and the answer was no. Citing costs, a lack of budgetary transparency, and “no real evidence that educational outcomes at TA are superior to those at OOBHS,” Phillips said that it would not be possible at this time.
But Katie, like her mother and father before her, plans to continue fighting.
“This story’s not over,” she said.
In the next few months, the honor-roll student from the beach is going to formally apply to the Saco school and she hopes she will be able to qualify for scholarships or financial aid.
“For me, this is what’s best,” she said.