An adjunct professor in the School of Communications (SOC) collapsed and died during class Tuesday, March 21.
Renee Hirshfield was teaching Film and Television Appreciation when she suffered a medical emergency, according to a university statement from SOC Dean Eric Rothenbuhler. The semester-long class was held in room 123 in the Sverdrup Building. Class began at 9 a.m., and Hirshfield collapsed around 9:30 a.m. Students performed CPR and called 911. Paramedics from the Webster Groves Fire Department and officers from the Department of Public Safety arrived and continued the aid. It is not known at this time what caused the situation.
Brandon Carney, a student in Hirshfield’s class, said this was not the first time Hirshfield collapsed during class.
“The very first day of class she collapsed, but she felt OK immediately when she hit the floor,” Carney said. “This time was different.”
Carney said the following class (week two of the semester), Hirshfield apologized for her fainting spell and blamed it on a side effect to a medication she was taking.
The day of her death, however, Carney said Hirshfield was acting a little strange during the beginning of class. He said she looked a little pale, but went on with her lecture.
“She was sitting in her chair giving her lecture. She would talk for a little but, then stop to I guess catch her breath,” Carney said. “Then all of the sudden, she collapsed and fell out of her chair.”
Hirshfield collapsed about 25 minutes into class. Carney said one student immediately called 911 as soon as Hirshfield went down. Another student, James Taylor, performed CPR on Hirshfield. The rest of the class ran out of the classroom, all to get help from anyone they could find.
Carney said it took the ambulance about three minutes to arrive at the scene. He waited for the paramedics to get there, watching to see which direction they were coming from. When the paramedics arrived, Carney directed them to Room 123 where Hirshfield had collapsed.
“Everyone was shocked because nobody was prepared for it,” Carney said.
The entire class waited outside the room while the paramedics tried to revive Hirshfield, except for James Taylor, the student who performed initial CPR. He remained inside the room with the paramedics.
“It felt like we waited forever to see if she was OK, but then James came out and told us that she had died,” Carney said. “He came out [of the room] after she passed. It took about 30 minutes until anyone else found out.”
Hirshfield had been teaching at Webster for the last two years. She was also an adjunct professor at Southwestern Illinois College. She was 66, and would have been 67 on Monday, according to a KMOX report.
Gary Ford, department chair of communications and journalism and the program facilitator of public relations, made a Facebook post that said the morning had been traumatic.
“One of our adjunct faculty members died after collapsing in front of her class,” Ford’s Facebook post said. “A student in the class, who happened to be an EMT [Emergency Medical Technician], started and continued CPR until paramedics arrived a few minutes later. Counselors are talking with the students in the class. This is the first time any of us can remember having a faculty person die in front of a class in the Webster University School of Communications. Life is fleeting.”
Department Chair of Electronic and Photographic Media Aaron AuBuchon said Hirshfield was “extraordinarily well-liked” and came to Webster with great recommendations from colleagues at other institutions.
“I only met her early last year, but she was a very nice person, and the students really liked her,” AuBuchon said. “She had very broad knowledge of film, and she was apparently extraordinarily organized.”
Adjunct professor of film studies Pete Timmerman said he has only known Hirshfield for a little more than a year, but that he knew her by reputation for many years before that.
“Her name frequently came up amongst St. Louis film fans and critics as one of the real treasures amongst local cinephiles,” Timmerman said. “When I did eventually meet her we became fast friends, frequently fawning over whatever film the other showed in class that day comparing notes on current releases… I sometimes tell students that they shouldn’t trust film teachers who don’t ever see movies, and with that in mind consider that I ran into Renee at three different films in the past week alone.”
Timmerman said at the last of those three films, he was talking to a former student when Hirshfield walked in. Timmerman introduced the student to Hirshfield, and within a minute they were talking like they were old friends.
“Clearly I have a lot I could have learned from her, and I’m deeply sorry that I only actually knew her for such a short period of time,” Timmerman said.
Adjunct professor of film studies and executive director of Cinema St. Louis (CSL) Cliff Froehlich said Hirshfield was a big supporter of CSL, sponsoring many films.
“I first encountered her during the French fest, and she was so clearly informed and enthusiastic that I asked about her background and was delighted to discover her love for and deep knowledge of cinema,” Froehlich said. “I subsequently asked her to introduce and discuss films for us at the French fest, and her perceptive commentary was an annual highlight of the past several years.”
Froehlich also said Hirshfield was scheduled to discuss a film this Friday. Instead, he will now pay tribute to her at that screening.
“I will miss her, and St. Louis is much poorer with her passing,” Froehlich said.
Carney said Hirshfield would often tell the class stories about people she knew in the film industry from decades ago.
“She was very intelligent and had many wonderful stories,” Carney said.
Counselors will meet with the entire class during their next session on Thursday, March 23. According to Webster Connections, there are 24 students in the class. According to the university statement, arrangements have been made for another instructor to finish out the semester with the students.
Counselors are available in the Counseling and Life Development office and can be reached at 314-968-7030 or by email at [email protected]