Looking Back: A Retirement Interview with Dr. Donald Ricci

Throughout their diverse and storied careers, UBC Department of Medicine faculty members acquire a wealth of clinical, educational, and leadership knowledge and skills. We value the experience of our retiring faculty and seek to capture some of their valuable insight and wisdom to share with the UBC Department of Medicine community. We hope that our current faculty will find these perspectives useful as they consider their own career paths.

Dr. Donald Ricci (He/Him/His)

Clinical Professor Emeritus

Department of Medicine/Division of Cardiology

Vancouver, BC

Dr. Donald Ricci was born and raised in Vancouver, British Columbia, and is a cardiologist with 35 years of experience in coronary intervention and structural heart disease.

Dr. Ricci was the recipient of the VGH & UBC Hospital Foundation 2018 Lifetime Achievement in Health Innovation Award. This award recognizes the exceptional capabilities, achievements and leadership of an individual from the medical device, biotech, diagnostics and/or health care industries.  For more, please visit:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8hvhkX0pt-U

Dr. Ricci retired from the UBC Department of Medicine in the Division of Cardiology in April 2020 and continues to act as CEO of Evasc (the company he co-founded) and enjoy his other varied passions – from woodworking to travelling the world.


What was your first job at UBC?

I started as a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Division of Cardiology.


Did you have any life-changing experiences that put you on a career path in Cardiology?

I’ve been asked that question before, and my answer has been (and continues to be) that I had a grandmother who had heart trouble. She was always taking these little pills under her tongue, which I now know to be nitroglycerin, and she ultimately died of heart disease. I spent a lot of time with her as a kid, and I’m not sure if that’s the reason I ended up interested in cardiology.

I also did an honours thesis during my undergrad with a cardiac physiologist named Dr. Franco Lioy that started me on my cardiology path. There was a very brief moment on a neurology rotation at Stanford University where I considered neurosurgery instead of cardiology, but that was short-lived. I left UBC shortly after medical school to do a residency in Internal Medicine at Stanford. I did three years of IM residency in Stanford and Boston and then returned to Stanford for a two-year cardiology rotation with an extra year at the University of California San Diego in the cath lab for a total of three years in cardiology training. After that, I returned to Vancouver and started as a junior faculty member at UBC.


What is your career highlight?

I would say establishing an interventional lab at Vancouver General Hospital (VGH). Coronary intervention did not exist when I started at VGH. There was no such thing as a program that you could attend to learn angioplasty. You learned by doing it, and you learned on the fly. What evolved was a pretty progressive internationally-renowned intervention lab at VGH.

We saw gaps and opportunities to fill a vacuum of both technology and technique. We were in the lab every day, experiencing the ins and outs of these procedures. We were able to be innovative enough to come up with new ideas to overcome the problems that we encountered in the lab – we essentially found a solution where there was a need.

My colleagues at Stanford had developed a unique and progressive balloon that was different and better than the original balloons that were being used for angioplasty in the late 1980s. We would communicate regularly and got an opportunity to use those balloons and provide feedback for future iterative developments. Those developments lead to improvements – that’s the technology piece.

The technique piece was negotiating all of the procedural variables: How do you guide the balloon in the right direction? How do you know what pressure to use? What is the best way to blow up the balloon? These were all things that nobody really knew how to do and what made you a pioneer in the field. With a little bit of luck and definitely a good amount of skill, you hopefully didn’t kill too many people and helped a whole lot of people. Out of that experience grew my interest in developing technology. That’s how I ended up working with my colleague, Dr. Ian Penn, developing stent technology and building the company. (Dr. Ricci is the CEO and co-founder of Evasc –  a company that builds novel medical devices for the endovascular repair of cerebral aneurysms.)


Who was your most important mentor?

I’ve had so many great mentors over the years. If I had to choose just one, it would be Kirk Peterson, an invasive cardiologist in San Diego I worked with during my third year of cardiology training. I learned a lot from him about how to approach people and how to conduct good research. He taught me a lot about clinical medicine and techniques. He was my most impressive mentor, and I still see him occasionally – he is still working in his 80s and is incredibly vibrant!


What advice would you have for a junior faculty member in your field?

I would say to a junior faculty member to follow your passion and enjoy what you do. If you don’t enjoy your work, don’t do it – go in a different direction. As a cardiologist, you’ve got so many opportunities. If you’re not careful, you can get pigeonholed into an area or subspecialty that you don’t enjoy. If you don’t enjoy your work, spending 40 years at it is a bad thing.


What advice might you have for a senior faculty member approaching retirement?

You know, everybody has different ideas about how they want to retire. I know people who’ve given up medicine completely and don’t miss it one bit. They’ve gone off in a completely different direction to be very successful. I don’t know that it’s a good idea to retire and THEN ask yourself the question: “What do I want to do now?”. I think it’s best to think ahead and say, “I’ve always wanted to do XYZ.“ and then plan for it before you retire.


If you had the opportunity to go back and do it all again, would you do anything differently?

I don’t think I would change a thing – I had a blast. I have had a good career. I’ve been successful, helped a lot of people, done a little bit of research, been innovative, and I’m still happy doing it. I think the key is to follow your passion, and always ask questions and look for solutions where there may be none. Every time you think to yourself, “Gee, this is a silly way to do this”, then think of a better or a different way. Maybe it will be successful, and maybe it won’t. Maybe people will try to discourage you, but you know what? You may have thought of a better mousetrap. Stanford does a great job at promoting innovation in response to an unmet need, and I think we need a little more of that at UBC.


What will you miss most about working at UBC?

The thing I miss most, particularly leaving the cath lab, is the people. I miss the banter and the camaraderie that you have with your colleagues. Those are the things that you miss – being on a Zoom call is not the same. I don’t necessarily miss doing the procedures themselves, but I do miss the patient interaction. I don’t think you appreciate how stressful the procedures and the environment are until you’re not doing it anymore. You take it in stride when it’s happening because that’s what you’ve always done, but when the responsibility is removed, you realize how stressed you were. But the environment where there are doctors, nurses, and techs all working together as a team – that is what makes the lab successful and what I miss the most.


What did you do on your first official day of retirement?

That’s a hard question for me to answer because I didn’t go “cold turkey” with retirement. I gave up doing cath lab activities in my mid-60s after we trained younger physicians to join the lab. I continued with a small clinical practice that allowed me to see patients once a week, to conduct research, and to participate in other teaching activities. In the last two years, when I would see my patients, I would let them know: “On your next appointment, you might not see me, but you’ll see Dr. so-and-so”. Then I would send them to one of my younger colleagues, who then carried on their care.  After that, I didn’t see patients at all because the whole process was rolling forward and the referring out process was successful. I retired shortly after that. So frankly, I don’t remember what I did on my first day of retirement. It wasn’t a sudden stop but a gradual process. It’s difficult as a physician to go cold turkey with retirement. You have to make arrangements for all of your patients that you’ve seen for years and years. I’m certainly not saying it’s the only way to do it, but the way that I chose to do it was to gradually pass those patients on to people that I have recommended. I like to think I made it a bit easier for the patients.


What is something we might be surprised to learn about you?

I feel like I’m a pretty open book! I do woodworking, and I think a lot of physicians who’ve spent their entire careers working with their hands are drawn to things that they can apply those skills toward. I have a workshop that I use to build things, mostly for my kids and 5 grandkids. And, of course, I enjoy being a grandpa to my grandkids. We used to travel a lot, of course, nobody’s travelling much these days, but as soon as we can, we will be back on an airplane.


Dr. Ricci with his daughter and granddaughter on his last day in the Cath Lab

The Department of Medicine is incredibly grateful to Dr. Ricci for agreeing to be interviewed and for being so generous with his time and insight.