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School of Dental Medicine

Continuing a Legacy of Service

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

To most people, he was Dr. Benjamin Ricci, chair of the department of anatomy and physiology at University of Massachusetts Amherst. He was an accomplished academic, author of several books, and a tireless special needs advocate who won a landmark case for the rights of patients with disabilities.

But to Eric John Ricci, D17, he was just Uncle Benny.

“Someone once described him as a one-man hurricane,” Eric said. “There was something in him that didn’t let him rest on his laurels, that made sure he was doing the most he possibly could.”

Benjamin Ricci had a son with a disability, Robert, who was a resident at Belchertown State School from the time he was six years old. After years of viewing the unacceptable conditions and lack of health care at the school, Benjamin successfully sued the Commonwealth (his employer at the time) to obtain better health services for patients in these state-run facilities. His efforts led to the development of services like Tufts Dental Facilities (TDF), which provides comprehensive dental care for patients with disabilities.

“When we think about civil rights, we obviously think about race. But it’s much more than that,” Eric said. “Rights for people with disabilities and special needs are an often forgotten aspect of civil rights. Uncle Benny was on the forefront of the civil rights movement for people with special needs, and that is something that I am incredibly proud of.”

Eric had no shortage of role models growing up. Uncle Benny was the first doctor in the family, and both he and Eric’s grandfather Rudolph Ricci fought in World War II. Eric’s father, John Ricci, is a practicing dentist who graduated from TUSDM in 1983 (the second doctor in the family). Since he was a child, Eric knew he wanted to follow in his dad’s footsteps. He joined the Class of D2017 so he could become the third “Dr. Ricci”, and use dentistry as a career to help others.

“Uncle Benny, my grandfather, and my dad are three of the many positive role models I was fortunate to have in my life who instilled a lot of pride in me, and taught me that your life is not just all about you,” he said. “You only have one life, and you need to use that life to improve someone else’s.”

Worlds collided for him at TUSDM when he was accepted into an externship at Tufts Dental Facility in Worcester, working with the same populations that his great-uncle advocated for 40 years ago. For six weeks, he had the opportunity to work with Site Director Karen Chang and her staff as they treated patients with special needs from the Worcester area. He even had the opportunity to scrub into the operating room at UMass Memorial Medical Center, where Dr. Chang provides sedation for patients who need a dental procedure but are unable to be awake for it.

“A lot of family members of our patients came in and said to me, ‘Thank God we found this place,’” he said. “That made the daily commute from Boston to Worcester worth the drive! I think a lot of our patients and their caregivers had gone from dentist to dentist before finding us.”

Many of the patients that Ricci treated while on externship were known as “Ricci Class” patients, meaning they were directly affected by the class action lawsuit brought by his great uncle.  Eric completed the externship on May 26, and wishes to stay involved with the program. After graduating, he plans to practice with his father in Providence, Rhode Island, which also sees a high number of patients with special needs. He recommended that all dental students have experience working with special needs populations.

“I wanted this externship, not just because of Uncle Benny, but because I wanted something that would challenge me,” he said. “It’s behavior management, de-escalating situations, working with caregivers, and making sure you’re taking time to explain everything very clearly. But if you can master this population, you can do anything.”