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Jim Kenyon: A Wife Makes Alzheimer’s Awareness Her Mission

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

  • Andy and Kathy Harvard are interviewed at their home in Hanover, N.H., on March 4, 2018. (Concord Monitor - Geoff Forester)

Published: 9/15/2018 11:19:45 PM
Modified: 9/17/2018 1:28:56 PM

The short hikes have become part of Andy and Kathy Harvard’s daily lives in recent years. The marked trails lead them through mossy woods, over rocks and along streams. Occasionally, they stroll the tree-lined edges of Hanover Country Club, where they “dodge golf balls,” Kathy joked.

Andy is happiest when he’s immersed in nature, she said — when he can see mountains such as Moosilauke, Cardigan and Cube in the distance.

“That hasn’t changed,” Kathy said. “That’s who he is.”

Andy Harvard was once a world-class mountaineer — four times he took on Everest — who was diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2009. He was 59.

An estimated 200,000 Americans — 5 percent of all Alzheimer’s cases — suffer from the uncommon form of dementia that strikes people under 65.

I’ve written about the Harvards a few times since meeting them in 2015. For years, their story had gone untold. Now it’s being made into a movie. (More on that in a bit.)

Andy, a 1971 Dartmouth graduate, gave up a career as a corporate lawyer to return to his alma mater in 2004. He was hired to oversee the century-old Dartmouth Outing Club, which was struggling. Dartmouth had burned through two directors of outdoor programs — the college administrator in charge of the DOC — in less than four years.

The Harvards and their three children moved to Hanover, building their dream home on the Connecticut River. But after a few years, Andy began having difficulty carrying out his day-to-day administrative duties at the DOC. He missed meetings and didn’t return his bosses’ emails.

In July 2008, Andy was told to empty his office in Robinson Hall and hand in a statement that the college planned to send out informing the Dartmouth community that he had decided to step down.

Dartmouth wanted the public to believe that Andy’s sudden departure was his idea. If Andy went public about his firing, he could kiss good-bye any chance of receiving a decent severance package.

Norwich attorney Geoffrey Vitt began negotiating a severance settlement with the college’s lawyers. But before a deal could be reached, Andy, who had been under a doctor’s care for depression since his firing, was diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer’s.

Vitt enlisted Andy’s physicians at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center to help make the case that Andy’s shortcomings at work were not of his doing. Robert Santulli, a geriatric psychiatrist who specializes in Alzheimer’s, told the college’s attorneys that it was “extremely likely” that Andy had begun to experience symptoms of his illness while still employed as director of outdoor programs.

Neurologist James Bernat also weighed in. “I believe it was the cognitive and language impairments from Alzheimer’s disease that led to his deficient job performance,” he wrote.

In light of the medical information, Vitt argued that Andy should be eligible for payments under the college’s short- and long-term disability plan. The benefits — paid out over six years and ending when he turned 65 — would have totaled $204,290.

Since Andy’s illness wasn’t diagnosed until after his firing, the college maintained that it didn’t owe him a dime. (For a while, the college dangled a severance package of $96,000 — equivalent to one year of his salary — if he’d agree to drop the matter.)

Legally, Dartmouth was on firm ground. Morally, it was wallowing in quicksand: A college with a $5 billion endowment was unwilling to lend a hand to an alumnus and former employee in his family’s time of need.

The on-again, off-again negotiations between Vitt and the college’s attorneys spanned more than seven years.

In 2013, Vitt proposed a settlement package totaling $296,451. It included the $204,290 in disability payments, plus $92,161 to cover the Harvards’ out-of-pocket medical expenses and contributions to Andy’s retirement account.

Dartmouth rejected the proposal.

In 2016, Rick Mills, the college’s chief financial officer, told me, “Dartmouth tried to address the financial effect Andy’s termination had on him and his family after learning of the diagnosis. Dartmouth offered to provide significant support on numerous occasions, but Andy’s family declined to accept the financial support that was offered.”

At the time, Vitt took exception to the college’s assertion that it had made multiple settlement offers. Dartmouth made only one offer of $96,000, which was rescinded after Phil Hanlon became president in 2013.

I’ve long suspected that Dartmouth’s decision to deny the Harvards’ settlement request had little to do with them. For the college, it was more about not wanting to set a precedent.

Last week, I met Kathy Harvard for coffee. I was hoping (more of a pipe dream, actually) that Dartmouth had had an epiphany and done the right thing since we had last spoken.

No luck.

“I’ve moved beyond that battle,” Kathy told me.

And how.

“She’s become a voice and an advocate for (state and federal) policy changes and funding for research,” said Mary Thon, an administrator with the Vermont chapter of the national Alzheimer’s Association.

She visits state legislators and writes to her representatives in Washington. She attends medical conferences on the latest discoveries and developments in the race to find a cure. Along the way, she discovered the Alzheimer’s Association’s 24/7 hotline that she could call at 2 in the morning with a question or a worry.

“The first few years, I was scared, my family was scared,” she said. “We lived in the closet for years. I had to learn everything I could to cope. It gave me strength.”

Kathy knows now that Alzheimer’s is a “medical condition, like cancer and heart disease. It’s not about normal aging. It’s about brain disease.”

In its 2018 annual report, the nonprofit Alzheimer’s Association estimates that 5.7 million Americans are living with the disease. Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S., killing more seniors than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined.

Caring for people with Alzheimer’s will cost an estimated $277 billion this year. The cost of caring for an individual over a lifetime is nearly $350,000.

Government insurance programs — Medicare and Medicaid — cover only a portion of the bill. “The vast majority of families are reaching into their own pockets,” Kathy said. “People end up selling their homes and diverting college and retirement funds.

“I know that story.”

In September 2015, two months after he turned 66, Andy moved into a one-bedroom apartment at Wheelock Terrace, a well-appointed assisted-living facility near downtown Hanover.

Kathy comes by each morning. Over coffee, she fills in her husband of 25 years on what their three children are up to. Their twins, Allegra and Nick, are in college. James, who graduated from college earlier this year, works for a microbrewery in southern New Hampshire.

Kathy also gives updates on the movie, of which she’s the executive producer, that’s now in the editing stages.

The Final Climb is a feature documentary that “parallels the tragedies and triumphs of Andy Harvard’s adventurous life with the vast medical, legal and financial implications of Alzheimer’s disease,” according to the independent film’s website. It’s due to be released early next year.

In good weather — and sometimes, in not so good — Kathy and Andy leave Wheelock Terrace for one of their frequent walks.

“We do whatever we can to be outdoors,” she said. “We do things that we can enjoy together.”

Friends sometimes join them on the outings. Last week, Jed Williamson, a longtime mountaineering friend from Hanover, came along to pick blueberries. “Kathy really is quite amazing,” Williamson told me.

He wasn’t just referring to her devotion to Andy, whom she has known since 1973 when he was preparing for a climbing expedition to the Himalayas, a region of the world that she was quite familiar with. As an undergraduate and graduate school student, she studied in Nepal, later returning to work there for the United Nations.

“For Kathy, it’s not just about Andy and her family,” said Williamson, who was interviewed and provided mountaineering footage for The Final Climb. “It’s about the big picture of Alzheimer’s, the nature of the disease and the toll it takes (on society).”

After bringing Andy back to Wheelock Terrace, Kathy heads off to work at InnerAsia, an Upper Valley company that specializes in Tibetan rugs, where she’s the marketing and sales director.

Back in his apartment, Andy, who turned 69 in July, settles into a comfortable chair to listen to books on tape. Currently, it’s a book about Watergate.

Each Alzheimer’s case is different and progresses at different speeds. For Andy, speech is becoming more difficult, and he is losing his ability to communicate. But he still has his short-term memory.

“I’m lucky,” Kathy said. “Andy still knows who I am. Maybe eventually it will be quite different, but for now, I’m grateful.”

Next Sunday, Andy and Kathy will take a walk that carries special meaning.

The second annual “Walk to End Alzheimer’s” will be held in White River Junction. The 1-mile and 2-mile walks begin at Lyman Park, next to the Hartford Municipal Building.

Registration starts at 9 a.m. The walks get underway at 10 a.m. Participants can pre-register online at alz.org/walk.

A group of 25 or so friends and family, including their children, have joined “Team Andy.” Overall, more than 330 people participated in last year’s walk.

The event, which is organized by the Alzheimer’s Association’s Vermont chapter, raised $51,000 in 2017. This year, the Byrne Foundation has offered a $25,000 matching grant.

“The point of the walk is not to just raise money, but to raise awareness as well,” Kathy said. “The experience for me and my family has been galvanizing. We need to do whatever we can to participate in what looks like a growing movement in the fight to end Alzheimer’s.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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