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A life altered by mental illness taken by COVID-19

Diane Marie Huggins died from COVID-19 on April 11. Above, in 2015, she waited for a ride to a doctor's appointment.
Diane Marie Huggins died from COVID-19 on April 11. Above, in 2015, she waited for a ride to a doctor's appointment.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/Globe staff

Diane Marie Huggins’s life was filled with upheaval. The good stretches could last for years. But a bad stretch could veer into the unthinkable.

Huggins, a grandmother of six, died from COVID-19 on April 11 at MetroWest Medical Center after living for the past few years at Waterview Lodge in Ashland. She was 66.

Raised largely in Roxbury, she spent her childhood bouncing from foster home to foster home. By the time Huggins was a mother of three young children, she was dueling with unrelenting, violent voices in her head. She would later be diagnosed with schizophrenia.

Three separate times, Huggins attacked strangers with a knife she carried in her purse. Her victims were a 4-year-old boy and mothers with young children. They survived, although one woman lost sight in one eye.

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Each time, Huggins was acquitted of her violent acts by reason of insanity, followed by a court-ordered stay at a state mental hospital.

Huggins’s course through the state’s splintered mental health care system was prominently featured in a 2016 article by the Globe’s Spotlight Team. It documented how no one spoke up or stepped in when Huggins stopped visiting Boston Medical Center for the outpatient psychiatric care she had come to rely on.

“It was hard for her, but we never turned our backs on her,” said Huggins’ daughter, Arianne Neves, of Waltham. “I think she just spent a lot of her life trying to be a normal person.”

Neves said her mother was reserved but social, and with her children she was quick to joke, laugh, and get silly.

“You could always get a smile out of her,” Neves said.

She enjoyed crossword puzzles and Stephen King novels. But most of all, she was a sports fan with a passion for football and basketball. The New England Patriots and the Boston Celtics were her teams.

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Upon learning Tom Brady was leaving the Patriots, Huggins claimed the world was ending, Neves said.

When Huggins’ life was on the upswing, she stuck to her antipsychotic medications, held a job in human services, and rented an apartment in Boston’s West End. In 2008, she earned a GED and then a college degree at Bunker Hill Community College. She was 51.

But her mental illness would prompt three psychotic episodes that resulted in the violence and sent Huggins to psychiatric institutions for long stretches.

For periods afterward, her family said, Huggins thrived. She relished her grandchildren and would regularly babysit Neves’s three children.

“My kids didn’t know the mother I knew,” Neves said. They knew a grandmother who showed up at events and took them out on weekends, she said.

On April 8, Huggins was taken to the hospital with a 103-degree fever. She tested positive for the virus and died April 11.

When it was clear that Huggins would not survive, a nurse arranged a FaceTime farewell. Huggins had little energy and her oxygen mask couldn’t come off for long, but she recognized Neves and her brother, Shaun.

“She said our names,” Neves said.

A few hours later she was gone.


Tonya Alanez can be reached at tonya.alanez@globe.com or 617-929-1579. Follow her on Twitter @talanez.