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Originally published October 4, 2013 at 9:22 PM | Page modified October 4, 2013 at 9:39 PM

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Obituary: Rheba de Tornyay, pioneering UW School of Nursing dean

Rheba de Tornyay, dead at 87, shook up the UW’s School of Nursing as she led it to a No. 1 ranking. Facing breast cancer, she also faced two issues: assisted suicide and medical marijuana.

Seattle Times staff reporter

She was a pioneering dean who in 1984 took the University of Washington’s School of Nursing to a No. 1 U.S. News & World Report ranking, where it has stayed ever since.

Rheba de Tornyay shook up the school when she arrived in 1975.

And, as she faced her last days at age 87, Ms. de Tornyay revised her beliefs about two issues: assisted suicide and medical marijuana.

She was a woman of strong opinions.

Said Richard Rosenthal, a friend with whom she emailed frequently: “She despised pap and obsequiousness.”

Before Ms. de Tornyay’s arrival at the UW, many faculty members had only master’s degrees.

Ms. de Tornyay was set on establishing one of the country’s first doctoral programs in nursing science. If the school was going to offer doctorates, the professors also needed such credentials.

She recalled in her memoirs that are with UW Special Collections: “I let it be known that no longer would persons without earned doctorates receive tenure and this, of course, created a lot of anxiety.”

So she reached out to the faculty through simple gestures such as sending handwritten notes for anything deserving recognition, like publishing a paper or the birth of a child. She remembered that, years later, faculty members told her how much those gestures meant to them.

Ms. de Tornyay died Sept. 27 at the Mirabella Seattle retirement community.

Desired option

Suffering from late-stage breast cancer, she sent emails to Rosenthal, of East Hampton, N.Y., in which she discussed assisted suicide. She wrote that she’d do the paperwork, even if she decided not to go through with it. She wanted that option, she said.

On Sept. 13, she wrote Rosenthal: “The days are dragging now and I am very ready to close my eyes and sleep for good. I think that will happen within a very few weeks. I’m very ready. Totally dependent on caregivers to help with virtually everything.”

Only a few years ago, Ms. de Tornyay had publicly opposed letting terminally ill patients determine their time of death.

In 2008, she wrote an opinion piece for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer opposing I-1000, the Death with Dignity Act, which ended up passing.

She had cited the example of her husband of 53 years, Rudy de Tornyay, who died in 2007 at age 95.

“The doctors told him he had only a few painful months to live,” she wrote.

She added, “ ... the medical profession now uses technologies that allow patients to manage their own pain and symptoms, so they experience the maximum of clarity and comfort. Rudy enjoyed his nightly movies right to the end.”

Then she faced terminal illness herself.

Said Rosenthal: “She was revising a lot of her opinions.”

Two of Ms. de Tornyay’s closest friends were with her when she died.

One, Sarah Shannon, an associate professor at the nursing school, wouldn’t comment about what happened in that room, saying that Ms. de Tornyay wanted her privacy.

Ms. de Tornyay came to the UW, where she was dean until 1986, at a time the nursing profession was changing.

Upon arriving at the UW, she shared her opinions with The Seattle Times, saying that low self-esteem for female nurses was one of the profession’s greatest problems.

She told of how nurses had to use their “feminine wiles” to subtly suggest to a male doctor a remedy for the patient. The doctor would then write out an order telling the nurse to do what she had suggested.

“ ‘And then she thanks him,’ said the new dean, shaking her head,” the story went on. “ ‘And it takes a lot of energy to play games, energy that could be spent in better ways.’ ”

Bill Gerberding, the UW president from 1979 to 1995, remembered how around the country, schools of nursing were always battling “the elephant in the room, namely schools of medicine.”

He said: “In the health-science complex, schools of nursing tend to be overshadowed by the schools of medicine that are larger, have patient-fee income and federal support for scientific training, etc. There is always a certain rivalry there, how a dean reacts to that, and how they get along with the dean of medicine.

“Rheba was one of those people who had figured that whole game. She didn’t have a big chip on her shoulder, she didn’t have an inferiority complex, she was strong and self-confident.”

Branded troublemaker

Ms. de Tornyay had an unusual background.

She was born April 17, 1926, in Petaluma in California’s Sonoma County. Her parents were among the Jewish chicken farmers with socialist leanings who had settled there. At the farm, she assigned herself the responsibility of taking care of sick animals.

In the war years, according to the book “Pivotal Moments in Nursing,” she entered the Mount Zion Hospital School of Nursing in San Francisco. During her time there, not surprisingly, she was branded a troublemaker.

Ms. de Tornyay organized the students and complained about the working conditions for student nurses and the invasion of privacy when the women’s mail was opened.

She helped organize the Bay Area Student Nurses Association, said the book, which led to her losing all privileges at the school and being restricted to her room for the purpose of “reflecting on her attitude.”

At the UW, even as an administrator, Ms. de Tornyay never forgot the students, said Sue Hegyvary, a former dean at the school who succeeded Ms. de Tornyay.

“She spent more time with them than they were accustomed to having faculty spend with them. She knew their names, often she knew about their families. They trusted her and respected her,” Hegyvary said.

Ms. de Tornyay earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing in 1951 from San Francisco State University and then in 1954 a master’s in education from the same school. In 1967, she earned a doctorate in education from Stanford University.

By 1971, she was dean of UCLA’s School of Nursing, and four years later moved on to the UW.

Along the way, she wrote a landmark book — “Strategies for Teaching Nursing” — that went through three editions and many translations over 30 years. She received numerous honors for her work in the field.

Rosenthal said that during her illness, Ms. de Tornyay also changed her mind about medical marijuana. He wrote that she had once told him marijuana was “habit forming and evil.”

But as her pain increased, she began using it.

Rosenthal wrote about Ms. de Tornyay last month in The East Hampton Star. It was titled, “Rheba tries pot.”

The essay told of a phone conversation that Rosenthal had with Ms. de Tornyay in which she said she was ashamed.

“I did some research and found I was wrong. ... I’ll be taking it in prescribed dosages as liquid drops.”

The drops did alleviate the pain, and Ms. de Tornyay held a workshop about medical marijuana for Mirabella retirees, with some 150 attending.

In one of her last emails to Rosenthal, Ms. de Tornyay wrote: “I’m very realistic and accepting. I’ve had a wonderful life, able to grow in different directions, but always with an internal compass pointing to a true place.”

Said her old friend: “I’ll miss her like crazy.”

Ms. de Tornyay had no children or close relatives.

A memorial service at the UW is planned for Oct. 13, although details are not finalized. More information will be available by calling the school at 206-543-3019.

Ms. de Tornyay had requested that all remarks be kept brief.

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com

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