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Stolen Memories: Dartmouth administrator fired before Alzheimer’s diagnosis 

  • Kathy and Andy Harvard sit down for an interview in their Hanover home earlier this year. Although Andy struggles with speech, he is aware and conscious and will smile and nod during conversations. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Kathy and Andy Harvard in their home in Hanover. Kathy talked about their issues dealing with Andy’s Alzheimer’s. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Kathy and Andy Harvard have faced their battle with his younger-onset Alzheimer’s head-on. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Kathy Harvard guides her husband Andy over to the couch of their Hanover home. Andy walks gingerly, one of the effects of Alzheimer’s. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Andy and Kathy Harvard pose for a portrait in the living room of their Hanover home. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Andy and Kathy Harvard in the living room of their Hanover home earlier this year. Although Andy struggles with speech, he is aware of his surroundings and smiles at appropriate times in conversations. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Kathy Harvard looks over at her husband Andy during their interview at their Hanover home. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Kathy and Andy Harvard during an interview in their Hanover home. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Kathy and Andy Harvard pause to think during an interview in their Hanover home. Andy didn’t receive his diagnosis of younger-onset Alzheimer’s until after he was removed from his job as a Dartmouth administrator, preventing him from getting disability benefits worth thousands to his family. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Monday, April 09, 2018

Andy Harvard never shied away from challenges.

As a young man, he made his way through law school and became a high-powered corporate attorney. He completed four treks to climb parts of Mount Everest and published several books on mountaineering.

But at the end of his career, as he went on to become Dartmouth College’s director of outdoor programs, Andy met some roadblocks he couldn’t have anticipated.

At age 58, still in peak physical condition, he missed deadlines, he didn’t return emails, he skipped meetings, and he would disappear from his office for long periods of time.

Eventually, administrators asked him to step down – a decision that came as a shock to Andy and his family.

“What they were saying was the exact opposite of who Andy was,” said his wife, Kathy. “It all really seemed to come out of the blue.”

Andy lost his job in July 2008. As part of his severance package, the college offered him a year’s salary and insurance benefits.

Almost a year later, just as his benefits were running out, Andy was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

Andy asked the college to give him the disability payment he would have been entitled to if he were diagnosed while still working. Those benefits, paid out over six years and ending before he turned 65, would have totaled more than $200,000.

That money would have helped the Harvard family a lot. Just a year in a nursing home can cost around $100,000.

But Dartmouth refused to give Andy the benefits, saying they weren’t obligated to pay because he hadn’t been diagnosed while he was still a college employee.

Although researchers are gaining deeper understanding of Alzheimer’s, its younger-onset form is still prone to misdiagnosis and can be devastating for those who experience it, experts say.

Symptoms that may be attributed to Alzheimer’s in older patients are often attributed to stress, depression, anxiety and lack of sleep in younger patients.

“In that way, almost everybody with early-onset Alzheimer’s gets screwed,” said Bill Phillips, a Dartmouth professor who is making a film about the Harvard family’s experience with Alzheimer’s.

A decade later – as Andy’s mental faculties have slipped away – the family is still fighting with the college for what they say was unfairly taken away.

The job

The Dartmouth Outing Club, considered the oldest and largest outdoor club in the country, was in flux around 2004. Two directors of outdoor programs had left in less than four years.

When Andy took the job as the Director of Outdoor Programs, he seemed like the perfect fit – he was a Dartmouth alumnus and an accomplished mountaineer with plenty of professional and leadership experience.

Andy, who learned how to climb as a student in the outing club, wanted to help grow the program. He moved excitedly into his new office in Dartmouth’s Robinson Hall, lining the walls with adventuring memorabilia, and the shelves with editions of the American Alpine Journal.

“I moved all my stuff in quickly,” he said in an interview with the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine that year. “I wanted everyone to know I intend to be around for a long time.”

The Harvards had three young children at the time – the oldest in elementary school, and 4-year-old twins – and were ready to settle down. They built a four-bedroom colonial on the Connecticut River that represented pieces of their lives. Photos of mountaineering trips together hung on the walls, and Nepalese saddles draped on couches and railings to pay homage to their shared time in the Himalayas.

“It was like coming home,” Kathy said.

Work problems

The job seemed to be going well for Andy. He established relationships with students and helped rebuild the college’s Harris Cabin, a crumbling 49-bed lodge on Moose Mountain in Hanover.

Kathy said she did notice that Andy seemed stressed. He was often kept up late working on weeknights and weekends.

“I noticed that he was acting as if he was overwhelmed,” she said. “But how would you differentiate that from what other 50-something-year-olds are experiencing in a busy work and family life?”

One day in July of 2008, Dartmouth’s dean of student life came into Andy’s office and asked him to step down.

Earlier that year, the college brought in a three-person “external review” committee to examine its outdoor programs.

The committee noted that Andy had been distant from colleagues in recent months, that he’d seemed disorganized and confused. Some speculated that Harvard might have a drinking problem.

The diagnosis

To receive a severance package from Dartmouth, Andy couldn’t talk to anyone about his job or what had happened. The college made it seem like he simply stepped down.

Meanwhile, Dartmouth continued to provide Andy and his family health insurance, and he was diagnosed with depression by a Dartmouth-Hitchcock psychiatrist.

“It made sense to me,” Kathy said of the depression diagnosis. “How could it not be depression? He was beside himself with anger and depression and stress.”

Kathy said Andy had been acting disaffected and quiet, that he hardly ever left the house.

“He was a man who was hard-wired to be active all the time, and I couldn’t get him to do anything,” she said. “It was really hard.”

Nine months later, in April of 2009, psychosocial testing revealed there was something much deeper going on.

Andy had trouble drawing and labeling the face of a clock and remembering a sequence of words.

He received a diagnosis of mild cognitive impairment, often a precursor to an Alzheimer’s diagnosis.

What followed were months of expensive blood work and CAT scans, PET scans and ECTs, which revealed the plaques and tangles crowding Harvard’s brain. He had Alzheimer’s.

The Harvards went back to the college, but Dartmouth still refused to provide Andy any benefits.

“While there was an extended period of discussion regarding his performance problems prior to his actual termination ... those discussions probably should have alerted him, his family and his supporters to the possibility of a medical problem,” Dartmouth’s lawyer, Kevin O’Leary, wrote in an email.

“However, the issue was not raised prior to his termination and terminated employees are not eligible for the disability benefits.”

Personal life

Andy tried to process his diagnosis, and what it would mean for his relationships with friends and family.

He feared – like many Alzheimer’s patients – that the diagnosis would change the way he interacted with those closest to him, that they would tiptoe around the subject of his illness, or become uncomfortable in his presence.

“I think anybody would do anything they could to protect themselves from experiencing that before they have to,” Kathy said.

The hardest day was when Andy told their three young kids about the diagnosis.

She remembers a beautiful early summer evening. Sunlight was filtering through the trees.

“We were just having dinner on the deck,” she said. “I didn’t know he was going to do it.”

Andy looked at Kathy in a way that made it seem like he wanted to say something. Then he did.

“He just said, ‘I’m dying,’ ” she said.

The whole family cried.

“They had known something was wrong, but they didn’t know what,” Kathy said. “It was a very, very hard conversation.”

Today

Even 10 years after his diagnosis, it would be hard to tell Andy has Alzheimer’s just by looking at him.

On a recent Saturday, he was sitting at his dining room table dressed in a yellow button-down shirt tucked into khaki pants. His graying beard was neat and trimmed.

Phillips was visiting the Harvards to talk about the upcoming documentary project he’s working on with them, The Final Climb, which details Andy’s fight against Alzheimer’s.

Andy sat in silence for a while, appearing to follow the conversation between his wife and Phillips about New Orleans, the city he lived in as a young boy.

When he finally spoke, he was agreeing to something Kathy said about his father, who had been a physician there.

“That’s right,” Andy said, suddenly, nodding his head. “That’s right.”

But it was after that, as Andy tried to say more, when his words tangled.

“It’s true. And you want to get to something that would really, these small but very beautiful places,” Andy said. “My father was in that kind of thing. You know, when, you know ... they run away, basically.”

Kathy looked at her husband, unfazed, nodding along as he spoke. Aphasia and difficulties finding words are both symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.

Kathy now has to guide Andy from place to place with her hands and help him into the car. He lives in an apartment in an assisted-living community not too far away.

There are still times when Andy seems very present in the moment, like when he laughs at jokes made about the country’s political climate. Kathy talks about how she wants to rent the movie Dunkirk for him to see.

She knows Andy still wants to share his story, in hopes that it might help other people.

“Both Andy and I couldn’t be more private before this. We were always like, ‘Got a problem, handle it yourself,’ ” Kathy said.

“But we realized it’s not just our problem. It’s a huge problem for a lot of people. And as long as we stay silent, they’ll feel like they have to stay silent, too.”

(Leah Willingham can be reached at 369-3322, lwillingham@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @LeahMWillingham.)