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The Dartmouth
May 21, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

‘A hero’: Richard Ellison MHCDS ’23 remembered for his service, generosity

Ellison, a traveling physician and retired Army surgeon, died in Hanover on Aug. 18 at the age of 57.

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Those who knew Richard Ellison remember him as a profoundly generous person who spent his life engaged in military and medical service, leaving an enduring impact on those close to him through his warmth and kindness.

Ellison, a member of the Class of 2023 in the Master of Health Care Delivery Science program at Dartmouth, died in Hanover on Aug. 18 at the age of 57. He likely died of a heart attack, according to his wife Kristi Ellison. Ellison is survived by his wife, three sons and two grandchildren. 

Ellison served as a general surgeon for 23 years in the U.S. Army. During that time, he was deployed three times to Afghanistan and three times to Iraq. He retired at the rank of Colonel with numerous service awards, including the Legion of Merit and Purple Heart, after surviving the explosion of a roadside bomb in Afghanistan that left him with chronic head pain and hearing damage, according to Kristi Ellison.

“It truly was a life of service,” Kristi Ellison said of her late husband. “Service to his country, service to his patients.”

Nevertheless, Ellison went on to pursue a fulfilling career as a traveling physician, moving with his family to small hospitals around the country to provide surgical operations for members of rural communities. Kristi Ellison said that his “happy place” was the operating room.

As Ellison’s injuries from Afghanistan made it increasingly difficult for him to work as a clinical surgeon, he began to look for other opportunities and found Dartmouth’s Master of Health Care Delivery Science degree, a 12-month joint program between the Tuck School of Business and Geisel School of Medicine intended to provide mid-career healthcare leaders with the skills to improve health care delivery.

Ever public-minded, Ellison sought to apply the insights he had gained from working in healthcare to help fix the system as a whole, Kristi Ellison said. She added that his goal was to work for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs after graduation “to try and tackle some of the issues for veterans and the broken parts of the VA healthcare system.”

“He felt very strongly that the mission of the military was a mission of public service, and his aspiration was to be able to continue that work but in the civilian realm,” MHCDS program director Katy Milligan said.

The MHCDS program is held virtually, with two in-person sessions at the beginning and end of each 12-month period, according to Milligan. Ellison, who lived in Luxemburg, Wisconsin, was on campus for the second and final residential session when he died.

As a student, Ellison was generous and well-liked by faculty and fellow students alike, according to faculty co-director of the MHCDS program Rob Shumsky. 

“He was always helping other students, sharing his experiences as a surgeon with the other students,” Shumsky said.“And he also brought this kind of military culture into the classroom, which was really interesting because it was so different from what the other students had experienced.”

Milligan added that Ellison was “very frank,” “very upfront” and fun to be around. She said that although he never hesitated to contribute in class, he was also humble and a good listener who believed he had a lot to learn from his classmates.

Kristi Ellison said that she has become friends with many of the other students in Ellison’s program, and they regularly check up on her. 

“He was a natural leader,” she said. “His classmates will tell you that when he walked into a room, people would get really quiet because they wanted to hear what he had to say.”

Although Shumsky said that Ellison’s disabilities caused him some difficulty with the program’s virtual learning format, he refused to let them stop him from completing the course. 

Kristi Ellison said that she assisted Ellison with his course technology and provided medical support as he worked to complete his degree. Milligan added that Ellison had fulfilled all the requirements of the program at the time of his death and will graduate posthumously with the rest of his class in June.

“It just spoke to his incredible tenacity and bravery in wanting to learn despite these challenges,” Shumsky said. “He was legitimately a hero.”

Outside of his studies at Dartmouth, Ellison was a loving husband, father and grandfather. Raised by a single dad who was also active-duty military, Ellison “never forgot where he came from” according to Kristi Ellison, who said that Ellison always made time for family. He frequently attended his children’s soccer games, went camping with his friends and supported his wife’s passion for boat racing.

Having completed his undergraduate and medical degrees in Georgia, Ellison was a lifelong fan of the Georgia Bulldogs and the Atlanta Braves. Last year, his teams respectively won the College Football National Championship and the World Series, which Kristi said was an “amazing” experience for him.

“He loved scary movies, but he said he never found one that actually scared him,” Kristi Ellison added. “People thought he was very serious and very focused, which he was, but he also had this side of him that most people didn’t get to see that my kids saw. He was very funny.”

Kristi Ellison recalled that each year, come holiday season, Ellison would buy winter coats to donate to kids who couldn’t afford them. She said that though he “wasn’t perfect,” he always tried his best to learn and improve.

“I think part of the reason he was so driven was if he ever stopped, it would be like giving in to the pain or giving up,” Kristi Ellison said. “He wanted to keep going. He just had an incredible drive.”