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Memories at odds with publicity about dentist's AIDS death


The friends of Victor Joseph Luckritz laid him to rest May 14. They never dreamed he would be making headlines nine days later.

Big headlines. Headlines that made "Vic" sound more monster than man. Headlines that seemed to implicate him for practicing unsafe dentistry -- treating patients without gloves -- even when he knew he was infected with the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS.

"This is the last thing any of us would have expected," said Carol Hilton, coordinator of the AIDS vaccine trials at Johns Hopkins Hospital. "We all know the risk factors of HIV infection in jail, but now everybody is blaming him."

Dr. Luckritz was the chief dentist at the Maryland Penitentiary from June 1988 to April 1990. He was responsible for overseeing dental care for inmates in the six Baltimore-area prisons. During his tenure, Dr. Luckritz is estimated to have seen as many as 4,000 inmates. Two weeks ago, inmates and prison officials discovered that he died of acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

A second dentist who treated Penitentiary inmates, Dr. H. Dale Scott, also died of AIDS, the dentist's brother confirmed yesterday. Dr. Scott, who filled in for Dr. Luckritz for 14 days in May and June 1989, died at 49 last October.

Since those discoveries -- and the subsequent allegation that Dr. Luckritz did not always wear surgical gloves -- the staff in the Division of Correction headquarters has worked feverishly setting up counseling and testing programs and trying to assess the state's financial liability.

Meanwhile, the friends of Dr. Luckritz try to reconcile memories of a beloved friend with the public portrait of a careless practitioner.

It doesn't sound like the once-hale 6-footer, the good-looking auburn-haired guy with the trim beard and sparkling hazel eyes. It doesn't square with the careful, considerate man they remember. And it doesn't tally with the memories a mother has of her son.

"He wore gloves. I watched him work, and he always wore a mask and gloves," said Marion Luckritz, who helped with clerical chores in her son's Dayton, Ohio, dental office. "He was always very careful, very safety-conscious. One reason he left the prison was that he said it wasn't sanitary enough for him."

Mrs. Luckritz loved Victor, her only son. The second of four

children, he was born June 30, 1943, to Marion and her husband, Victor Sr., who worked as a lithographer in a printing business. The family was close.

Victor was a paperboy. He was a good student, but his real love was theater and music. He played trombone in the school band. He loved records and radio. When he went off to college, he thought he would study architecture, but he soon told his mother there were already too many in the field. He left school and entered a Roman Catholic seminary. He went to a novitiate in New Jersey, but he discovered that the contemplative life was not for him, either.

Going back to college, Victor tried Ohio State before settling in at Tennessee Tech in Cookeville. He worked as a choreographer at a local playhouse while studying for a business degree. After graduation, he found a job as a traveling accountant for dentists. But the more he traveled, the more he felt pulled to his clients' profession. He enrolled in the University of Kentucky College of Dentistry and received a degree in May 1979.

Dr. Luckritz spent his first year as a dentist in Cincinnati. In 1980, he returned home to Dayton, where he practiced in two offices. In 1984, he answered an ad for a teaching position in Baltimore. The job didn't work out, but he stayed anyway.

"He loved Baltimore," said Mrs. Luckritz. "When he went there and it seemed the company he was with wasn't doing so well, he started looking for a private practice. Then he got the job at the Penitentiary."

The job seemed like just the thing, said Ms. Hilton. It gave Dr. Luckritz a steady income without causing him a great deal of stress. The hours were manageable.

Ms. Hilton said she never saw her friend practice dentistry. But she never saw any sores on his hands, and she has a hard time believing that he wouldn't have worn gloves.

Would he have knowingly endangered patients?

"No, emphatically, no," Ms. Hilton said. "This isn't fair to all the professionals who are infected. What are people supposed to do? Give up their careers? People who are infected are overly conscientious."

At the Penitentiary, Dr. Luckritz was an independent contractor employed by Correctional Medical Systems, a St. Louis-based subsidiary of ARA Group Inc. Maryland records show that he was first licensed here in 1984 and that his license was renewed every two years afterward.

An official for CMS said Dr. Luckritz and the company "mutually agreed" to part ways in April 1990 because of the dentist's difficulty in "interpersonal relationships" with staff and patients and because -- contrary to company procedure -- he didn't wear surgical gloves at all times.

The official said that in March 1990, an inmate at the Baltimore "Supermax" prison complained that Dr. Luckritz was not wearing gloves during treatment.

Mrs. Luckritz tells a different story.

"He said the girls under him, his assistants, he had to remind them constantly to keep things sterilized. He remarked about that to us several times," she said. "He said he complained to the officials about it several times, but nothing was done about it. So he decided to leave."

Friends say he also decided to leave because he knew he was going to die. Frank Rybcynski, a close friend, said Dr. Luckritz told him he had AIDS two years ago in December.

"We [the two men and their partners] were in New York. We went up there for a weekend of theater and opera," said Mr. Rybcynski. "He was being so careful in the way he was going to break the news to us."

Mr. Rybcynski said his friend wanted to spend his remaining time doing the things he enjoyed most -- making stained-glass artworks and creating computer designs.

"Two of his passions were Hawaii and glassmaking," Mr. Rybcynski said. "In front of their fireplace were three stained-glass panels with scenes from Hawaii. There was the goddess Pele, some flowers and surf. There were brilliant reds and blues. His passion for Hawaii and for stained glass was like his personality -- vivid and colorful."

Dr. Luckritz's third passion was for his partner, Lawrence Fechter, an associate professor of environmental health sciences Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. The two men, who lived in Mount Washington, were together for several years.

Dr. Fechter could not be reached for comment.

All of Dr. Luckritz's friends agree: He loved life and relished theater, music, cooking and companionship. He did not deny his gay identity -- volunteering to help out at the Advocate, a local gay paper, and attending demonstrations sponsored by ACT-UP, an AIDS advocacy organization.

He also faced death courageously.

"I see many people who are angry, but he wasn't that way," said the Rev. Dale Dusman, minister at St. Mark's Lutheran Church. "He dealt with it gracefully. He wasn't afraid of dying."

James Harp, director of the Baltimore Men's Chorus, remembers Dr. Luckritz's tenor voice and his musical arrangements, his sense of humor and his courage.

"In the last two months, he deteriorated very badly. He wasn't ambulatory all the time," Mr. Harp said. "But he didn't complain, and he didn't feel sorry for himself.

"I don't remember him talking about [AIDS] except for one time, last winter. He came to me and told me what music he wanted at his memorial service."

At that memorial service, Mrs. Luckritz finally met the friends who meant so much to her son.

"No one could have had a better son. He was conscientious and meticulous. Everyone who knew him loved him," Mrs. Luckritz said. "But what they are saying now, and why they are saying it, I don't know. I don't know unless it's to make themselves look good.

"And he's not even here to defend himself."

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