FOSTER — Less than two months after undergoing surgery to remove a brain tumor, Chariho Superintendent of Schools Barry Ricci sat in the kitchen of his home in Foster, in the middle of the day, drinking a glass of iced tea. The new pace is a radical departure for the self-admitted workaholic, but it’s a change he’s been forced to make.
“I know I have limitations right now, and until I’m relieved of them, this is the way it has to be,” Ricci said. “It doesn’t mean I’m not engaged. It doesn’t mean I’m not doing some bits of work here, because I am, but obviously not engaged at the level I would have been.”
Looking back, Ricci says there were signs that something was amiss with his health. He had difficulty typing with his left hand, he couldn’t button his shirt, and he kept dropping his wallet when he thought he was putting it in his pocket. It was found and returned to him three times.
Ricci’s wife, Lisa, a nurse, said she had also noticed changes.
“I just noticed some subtle changes in his physical behavior — nothing cognitively, just physically, with his left side,” she said. “And I thought, ‘Hmm, something is wrong.’”
Then on June 8, during the Chariho commencement, Ricci received a text message from English teacher Vincent Levcowich, complimenting him on his speech but telling him he didn’t look well.
“Vinnie texted me after the speech and he says, ‘Great speech, but you didn’t seem quite right. Are you okay?,’” Ricci said, reading the message that he saved on his smartphone. “That kind of really pushed me, so I called the doctor on Monday morning from the office, told him the symptoms, they saw me right away. I drove from Chariho to East Providence. They sent me for a CAT scan. Drove to the CAT scan. That’s when they found this tumor, and I went into the emergency room at Rhode Island Hospital.”
Lisa said the family was stunned by the diagnosis.
“It was very traumatic,” she said. “There really were no words when we got the diagnosis. I don’t think any of us spoke. You just couldn’t believe what you were hearing.”
Ricci was told that the tumor had to come out as soon as possible, and three days later, he was in surgery.
“They did what they call a resection, a 100 percent resection, which is as good as you can do, but they can’t ever be sure they got every cell,” he said.
Ricci is now about halfway through a course of chemotherapy and radiation therapy that began the first week of July.
“It’s really just fatigue,” he said. “I’m not really having any other symptoms. My immune system isn’t capable of responding to anything serious, so I have to be careful. They just want me to wash my hands a lot, and if anyone’s got a cold, to stay away.”
Lisa has taken leave from her nursing job at Miriam Hospital to help her husband recover and drive him to appointments.
“My wife has been phenomenal,” Ricci said, his eyes filling with tears. “I don’t think I would be here without her. I’m sorry if I’m getting emotional — I’ve become emotional more than ever before. She’s been just incredible.”
Lisa said the entire family has come together since the surgery.
“All of his family, and mine, have truly been amazing,” she said. “We are on a ride we never thought we’d be on, but they’re taking the ride with us, and we can’t ask for more than that.”
Asked if there was anything in particular that had helped him through the surgery and recovery, Ricci got up from the table and returned with two photographs of his 14-month-old grandson, Sam. The photos were with him throughout his stay at the hospital.
“I love him so much,” he said. “I want to be able to watch him grow up.”
“That was very important,” Lisa said of the photographs of Sam. “When you wake up to that little face every morning, how can you not feel positive and energized and feel like there’s so much to live for?”
The family has also received countless messages and other gestures of support from the Chariho community.
“The cards, the emails, text messages, people I don’t even know. It’s just incredible,” Ricci said. "Hundreds of cards. I have never known that kind of support before, nor have I ever needed it, but it made me realize that there are times in people’s lives when they have to accept that, and we also have to be willing to give it when people need it.”
When he’s feeling stronger, Ricci intends to get down to the business of thanking everyone.
“I haven’t written thank-you notes, because I can’t sit there and write them. It gets too emotional, so they’re sitting on my dining room table, waiting for me to write,” he said.
Between the post-operative therapy and all the visitors, Ricci said he hasn’t had time to be bored.
“I’m remaining engaged with school the best I can,” he said. “There are a lot of appointments, doing therapy, occupational therapy … I’ve done some writing, responses to things I’ve read in the paper, just for myself, mostly. If it was a little cooler outside, I could go and do a little of the yard work. I walk every day. I try to do a couple of miles a day.”
At a recent meeting with School Committee Chairwoman Sylvia Stanley and Vice Chairman Ryan Callahan, Ricci, who is 61, said he made it clear that, while he was not yet ready to retire and planned to return to work, he was prepared to step aside if he felt he was no longer able to do the job.
“It wasn’t in my plan to retire yet, but I’m also not going to put the district at a disadvantage because of my health. That’s not going to happen, so if I need to retire because of health issues, I will,” he said.
There are two short-term goals currently on Ricci’s agenda: attending the ribbon-cutting for the Chariho Alternative Learning Academy on Aug. 21 and greeting teachers and staff at the annual convocation, which takes place on Aug. 31.
“After surgery, I set a goal of being back to speak at convocation, so that’s my plan, to be back to speak at that opening,” he said. “I’ve written a speech. That’s really important to me, to be able to do that.”
Walking out of the house to the driveway, Ricci glanced at the yard, where he enjoys working in his free time. But that was before the surgery.
“My grass looks like crap,” he said, quickly looking away. “But some things don’t matter any more.”