ST. PETERSBURG — Cold weather and illness drove a young Louis Ricca to St. Petersburg some 66 years ago.
An expertise in rheumatic illnesses kept him here, turning his office near Eighth Street and Sixth Avenue S into a fixture for 32 years. Dr. Louis Ricca, one of the area's first rheumatologists, died Nov. 12 at Bayfront Health St. Petersburg, of heart failure. He was 76.
St. Petersburg provided Dr. Ricca with a steady stream of seniors whose medical mysteries he enjoyed solving.
"It might have been a lingering injury that popped back in. Old war injuries coming back," said Lou Ricca III, Dr. Ricca's son. "Or something as simple as stepping out of a car at a shopping center."
Rheumatologists treat arthritis and other diseases of the joints, muscles and bones; but also sometimes organs such as the kidneys, lungs and brain. In 1974 there were only 2,000 rheumatologists in the United States. Dr. Ricca was one of five practicing in the St. Petersburg area.
Because many illnesses he treated were chronic rather than acute, reimbursement often lagged behind medical need. Dr. Ricca was a strong advocate for patients, battling providers and insurance companies.
"Dad did not shy away from the spotlight, and he liked to call a spade a spade," said Louis Ricca III, 38.
Louis Ralph Ricca was born in 1937 in Staten Island, N.Y. His father, a truck driver, died of leukemia when Dr. Ricca was 7. Before that death and after, he suffered bouts of rheumatic fever, combined influences that pushed him to medicine as a career, his family said.
At age 10, his mother moved him to Florida to escape the cold. Dr. Ricca graduated from the University of Miami and its medical school. He opened his St. Petersburg practice around 1966, a lifeline for hundreds of patients with aches and pains they hadn't found words to identify.
An instant attraction and bond with Mary Ann Monisky in 1973 resulted in a marriage that had lasted 39 years at the time of his death.
In 1992, Dr. Ricca became outraged when one of his patients, a retired nurse, was billed $1,292 for some blood work he had requested.
When his protests to University General Hospital of Seminole went unanswered, Dr. Ricca found an outpatient testing lab that charged $278 for the same tests. The hospital eventually reduced the bill by $500, citing a computer coding error.
He spent three years at Suncoast Medical Clinic, leaving in 1998 after the clinic was bought by the Nashville-based PhyCor Inc. He worked part-time as a rheumatologist and professor at the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa, and as a researcher for Radiant Research.
Away from work, he enjoyed gardening around his Allendale home. He celebrated spontaneously, calling family members to go out to a restaurant to "have cake," his all-inclusive term for a good time.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.