Health law expert wrote essay on dying on own terms
Nathan Hershey, a pioneering figure in health law who through five decades at the University of Pittsburgh was known as a passionate and opinionated scholar, died April 15 in an Austin, Texas, hospital of complications from a fall.
A professor emeritus in Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health, he was 13 days shy of his 87th birthday, said his daughter, Suzanne, who lives in that city. His fall two days earlier in a memory care facility came amid late-stage Alzheimer’s disease, a struggle he went public with, including a 2014 essay in the Pittsburgh PostGazette.
In that piece, he expressed a desire to die on his own terms but lamented that current law does not allow it. His words were seen by some as one more act of courage by an academic who colleagues said was an unrelenting advocate for justice and equity.
“My intelligence and autonomy have been of utmost importance to me for almost all my life,” he said in the article written with help of an essay assistant, Alicia Ni’Tracy. “To exist in such extreme dependence today is agonizing for me.”
Mr. Hershey was a fixture in the classroom and a prominent figure in campus governance through his long tenure on the University Senate, a representative body of faculty, staff, administrators and students. He served the maximum three terms as its president, from 1998 to 2001.
He loved history, in particular American history, said his daughter. He also enjoyed athletics from tennis to basketball and was an avid runner, explaining the light gray gym bag he would tote and the tennis shoes he often wore.
“Nat,” as he was often called, was less than imposing at 5 feet, 8 inches tall, but intellectually he was a force, seldom shy to offer an opinion, in a distinctively nasal voice.
For sure, he focused on the big picture — expanding access to education and to health care; women’s health and reproductive rights; workplace equity; and the academic performance of student athletes.
Many of his students were health professionals with pagers, which so irritated him in 1998 he raised it with the faculty assembly.
“You start to get edgy when you get the third page in a two-hour class. It catches you off guard,” he said in a Post-Gazette article that year. “Maybe I’m the only one dumb enough to raise this.”
Even on campus matters where they disagreed, said Pitt Chancellor Emeritus Mark Nordenberg, it was clear Mr. Hershey had the school’s interests at heart.
“He was a person who had strong ideas, and he presented them quite directly, but inside he was just a wonderful guy with a big heart,” Mr. Nordenberg said.
He recalled how emails from Mr. Hershey would arrive with nine words just below the man’s name and title — “I am against people who push other people around.”
Persistence made him effective in dealing with the administration, whether it was working on an improved research integrity policy or an accelerated faculty grievance process, said emeritus associate dental professor John Baker, a former University Senate president.
“He had a wry wit,” Mr. Baker said. “He could be quite gruff, but once you got to know him, he had a heart of gold.”
Students over the decades recalled his impact.
“It’s amazing what I learned from him and how often I think of him as I work through my days at the hospital,” said one of those students, Christopher Gessner, president, Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. “Such a great man.”
Mr. Hershey was born and raised in the Bronx, N.Y. He enrolled in New York University, receiving an undergraduate history degree in 1950 and a law degree from Harvard three years later.
After service in the Army stationed at Fort Knox, Ky., Mr. Hershey worked for a law firm in New York City before coming to Pitt in 1956, initially as a research associate.
He worked on early efforts to provide computerized access to law. Pittsburgh is where he met his wife of 50 years, Carol, who died in 2008.
A health law professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management, he authored many books, chapters and articles, recalled Donald Burke, dean of the Graduate School of Public Health and associate vice chancellor for global health at Pitt.
In a memo Monday notifying faculty of Mr. Hershey’s death, the dean recalled his colleague as “an irresistable champion for justice and equity” who had an integral role in creating the field of health law, which regulates what is now the nation’s largest industry.
“Even at 76 years old, Nat knew how to get your attention.
“With his office just down the hall from mine, Nat would frequently stop in to give me advice about running the school, usually unbidden, but always on the mark,” the dean added.
Mr. Hershey had been a Squirrel Hill resident until 2014 before moving into Locust Grove in West Mifflin, and more recently Austin.
The disease that consumed his later years was the antithesis of the life he led.
Having his thoughts about Alzheimer’s put into an essay was a validation, said his daughter Suzanne, whose younger sister Madeleine of Swissvale died in 2015. Suzanne said her father talked about the dilemma created by the disease often.
“As soon as he would start telling me ‘I’m ready to pass on, I would say “Hey, dad. Do you know you’re writing an article about that?’ He would say “Is it any good? I’d say ‘It’s coming along.’ ”
Mr. Hershey directed that his body be donated for scientific purposes, his daughter said.
In keeping with his preference, no memorial service is planned, but his daughter suggested marking his upcoming birthday by doing something her father would have enjoyed — taking a run or walk in the park, shooting hoops or eating bagels.
To read Mr. Hershey’s essay about dying on his own terms, go to post-gazette.com.