Gainesville natives Don and Dot Pirkle had no idea their first date to a Christmas service in 2016 would lead to a life-saving robotic heart surgery for a stranger seven years later.
Timing is Everything
Don and Dot Pirkle, who both lost spouses in 2015, attended a church program during the holiday season for people who are grieving. This date was the start of a beautiful relationship and unintentionally, the beginning of new possibilities for Northeast Georgia Health System (NGHS).
“That first night, we prayed together, cried together and lit a candle together,” said Dot. “After it was over, we shared a meal that lasted more than three hours – we just had so much in common and really enjoyed each other’s company. We’ve been inseparable ever since.”
Don, 86, and Dot, 85, were married the next year. Their dedication to and love for each other is palpable and can be seen in how they enjoy doing activities together. Part of what they love doing together is volunteering with NGHS. Over the years, Dot has served as a greeter, president of the NGHS Auxiliary and now she and Don are co-chairs of the NGHS Window Shops. Their closeness extends to philanthropy and led to the campaign that made robotic heart surgery at NGHS a reality for patients across the region.
The Pirkles have a history of championing projects at NGHS. Shortly after their wedding in 2017, Don donated to the NGHS Foundation in honor of Dot’s volunteer leadership at the hospital for her to designate after his passing. Their most recent gift came after a dinner in 2022 hosted by the NGHS Foundation with leaders from NGHS and Georgia Heart Institute.
“During the dinner, I was chatting with one of our heart surgeons and I just knew,” said Don. “Our hospital has the facilities now and the experienced providers – and I knew it was the perfect time to make another gift.”
Right Place, Right Time
Bill Mayfield and his wife were visiting their son in Georgia when Bill started to feel ill. He visited Northeast Georgia Physicians Group (NGPG) Urgent Care in Dahlonega, where the care team discovered a heart murmur he would later learn was caused by mitral valve regurgitation – the valve between the two chambers on the left side of his heart wasn’t closing properly. They quickly referred him to T. Sloane Guy, MD, a robotic heart surgeon and the director of Minimally Invasive and Robotic Heart Surgery at NGPG.
Dr. Guy explained Bill needed heart surgery, but a traditional surgical approach would result in significant scarring and several months of recovery. Luckily, Dr. Guy, a nationally renowned robotic heart surgeon, had just joined NGPG only two months prior. As the first-ever robotic heart surgeon to perform surgeries at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville, he believed Bill was an ideal candidate for the less-invasive option, making Bill the first patient to receive robotic heart surgery at the hospital.
“I read that Dr. Guy was one of the best robotic heart surgeons in the country,” said Bill. “It made the most sense for us to receive treatment in Georgia, and it was definitely worth it. I can’t believe what the team was able to do through these tiny incisions. I remember when my brother had open heart surgery, and this is a totally different experience.”
Just two days after the procedure, Bill was leaving the hospital and feeling great.
“Robotic surgery patients can have a significantly shorter recovery period,” said Dr. Guy. “This means they can get back to their normal activities sooner than open heart surgery patients. Bill’s surgery went so well that he was able to fly home to Minnesota the following week.”
NGPG Cardiovascular and Thoracic Surgery is an integral part of Georgia Heart Institute, Northeast Georgia Health System’s (NGHS) comprehensive heart and vascular service line. These teams work together to provide heart care that patients locally, and nationally, can count on.
“Whether the surgery is done using a minimally invasive approach or an open approach, our primary goal is providing the best possible treatment plan and outcome for each individual patient,” said Clifton Hastings, MD, medical director of NGPG Cardiovascular & Thoracic Surgery. “We’re collaborating with the cardiologists of Georgia Heart Institute to coordinate care across specialties, providing patients a seamless patient experience.”
It All Comes Around
Together, Don and Dot decided to redirect the 2017 gift along with a $250,000 cash gift — totaling $500,000 — to Georgia Heart Institute in support of the robotic heart surgery program. At the same time, they’ve challenged the community to match their $500,000 gift to raise a total of $1 million in support of robotic heart surgery.
“The timing of the dinner with system leaders could not have been more perfect,” said Chris Bray, chief development officer at NGHS and president of the NGHS Foundation.
“We work to provide our donors opportunities to meet with physicians and thought leaders to inspire collaborative problem solving. NGHS identified a need – and the Pirkles rose to the occasion while encouraging others to join them.”
“To whom much is given, much will be required,” said Don, quoting Luke 12:48 from the Bible. “We believe in giving back because we have been so blessed.”
Schedule an appointment with NGPG Cardiovascular & Thoracic surgery by calling 770-219-7099, or with one of Georgia Heart Institute’s cardiologists by calling 770-534-2020.