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A 1991 graduate of Vidalia High School, “Whip,” as he is known to family and friends, attended pharmacy school at the University of Georgia, Mercer University School of Medicine, and served his surgical residency at Memorial Health University Medical Center in Savannah. His fellowship in advanced laparascopic and bariatric surgery was at the Cleveland Clinic in Florida. He returned to the staff at Memorial in Savannah in 2005. Before last week, Dr. Whipple had not practiced at Meadows for a decade when he provided general surgery coverage on weekends. Now, as Meadows’ first bariatric surgeon, he will be operating locally on a routine basis. Meadows CEO Matt Hasbrouck remarked, “It’s pretty remarkable. Bringing these highly complex procedures and services to Toombs County at Meadows means offering comprehensive care closer to home. Patients who once traveled hours away can come here for the vast majority of their surgical needs. Dr. Whipple and his family have been pillars of the community and his homecoming is a true testament to our partnership and commitment to this community.” Many residents will remember Dr. Whipple’s father, also named Oliver, who was associated with City Drug Store in Vidalia for over 40 years. His mother, Rozanne, worked with the Department of Family and Children’s Services. Now retired, the Whipples maintain a farm three miles from Lyons. Just across the road, their son, Whip, and his wife, Ronda, have restored a family farmhouse built in the late 1800s by “the other side of the family,” specifically I.Q. Coleman, who was Dr. Whipple’s great- grandfather.
Family roots and medicine run deep in Dr. Whipple’s family. His kin have been in Toombs County for five generations and his great-grandfather, Oliver “O.J.” Jelks Whipple, was a Vidalia dentist. In addition to his father, Dr. Whipple’s wife is a pharmacist, as is his sister, Ellen, who now lives in North Carolina.
Whip and Ronda met while they were in pharmacy school. The couple has three children, Avery, 19, a freshman at Kennesaw State; Coleman, a junior at St. Andrews in Savannah; and Claire, who just finished sixth grade at St. Andrews. So far, only Claire has professed an interest in medicine. She wants to be a veterinarian. The Whipples lives on Wilmington Island but visit the Toombs County farmhouse a couple of times each month. The house is a gathering place for the Whipples, with Ellen and her family often coming from Atlanta for visits.
Family connections continue, Dr. Whipple related. His uncle by marriage, Dr. Bob DeJarnette, who was a general surgeon in Vidalia, was a part of Whip’s life from birth. “Uncle Bob delivered me and was my pediatrician,” Dr. Whipple said, noting that his Uncle Bob was among the top three people who inspired him to embark on a medical career. “The others were Jim Dewberry, a retired orthopedic surgeon in Savannah, and Billy Moses in Dublin. I rotated with Billy as a first and second year student at medical school.”
A general surgeon with a subspecialty in bariatric and advanced laparoscopic surgery, Dr. Whipple said he “morphed into robotics” and now, 90% of his surgeries are robotic. These are mostly in the upper abdomen, including bariatric, which is weight loss surgery, hiatal hernia repairs, other hernias and gallbladder procedures.
He noted, “Robotics is a platform that gives me the ability to reach angles and perform tasks that cannot be done laparoscopically.” He explained that with laparascopic procedures, the instruments are straight; they can rotate and open and close, but they don’t have the articulating wrist that robotics provides to offer another degree of freedom, the ability to make angles, and to make it easier to sew.
In robotics, there are two cameras on the end of the scope, which provides a 3-D image for the surgeon who is manipulating the robot from a console in the operating room. “I get depth perception and can manipulate tissue more easily than with laparoscopic surgery.” Both laparoscopic and robotic surgery are less invasive than traditional methods — the surgeon is able to make tiny incisions to insert surgical tools — and recovery time for the patient is shortened, usually by about one day. “Postoperative pain is lessened and the surgeon is more comfortable because of the precision and control afforded by robotics,” Dr. Whipple said. Depending on the procedure, laparoscopic surgery and robotic surgery are sometimes used together.
Another factor in successful robotic surgery is having a well-trained team in the operating room. In Savannah, Dr. Whipple is assisted by PA Jody Hannah, with whom he has worked since 2004. “Of the 3,000 surgeries we have done, she was the first assistant for about 95% of the cases,” he said. Hannah accompanied Dr. Whipple when the robotics team was being built in Vidalia. Caitlin Godbolt, the robotics coordinator at Memorial Health, also participated in the buildup at Meadows, as did Dr. Whipple’s circulating nurses from Savannah.
While Hannah and other team members from Savannah initially came along to facilitate the marriage of the Memorial
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Health and Meadows robotics programs, the staff at Meadows has stepped in to support Dr. Whipple’s work. The Meadows team includes two familiar faces: Janet LaCombs Tabor, Robotics Coordinator at Meadows, and Jennifer Rushing Wolfe, Director of Surgical Services. “Janet and I went to school together in Toombs County from kindergarten on,” Dr. Whipple said. Jennifer was also a schoolmate. “When I was on the football team, she was a cheerleader. Her husband was the quarterback,” he reminisced.
Even the anesthesiologists who work on the Meadows team are familiar to Dr. Whipple from his previous days in Vidalia. Dr. Whipple had high praise for the Meadows team. “In the operating room, there are a lot of moving parts and as surgeon I am the captain of the ship and have to have everyone working in same direction. I must bring consistency so the team will know what to anticipate, so everything is smooth.”
He gave as an example a Meadows scrub tech, Sophie Frink, whose job is to keep up with and dispense the instruments the surgeon requires to do his job. “I have worked with a lot of scrub techs. She is really on her game. She wants to learn and she learns quickly. She is engaged.”
Dr. Whipple also acknowledged the surgeons who are routinely practicing robotic surgery at Meadows, including general surgeons Dr. Kendrix Evans and Dr. Henry Ferland. Women’s Care physicians using the system are Dr. Allana Coggins and Dr. Ashlee Nicole Tillery.
The acquisition of the da Vinci robotic system was critical to Dr. Whipple’s return to Meadows, but he said the big reason he came back to Vidalia was because of his friend and associate CEO Matt Hasbrouck. Hasbrouck served as Chief Operating Officer at Memorial Health University Medical Center in Savannah since February 2018, when it transitioned to HCA Healthcare. He also served as the COO of Fairview Park Hospital in Dublin. At Memorial Health he and Dr. Whipple championed the development and expansion of the robotics program to the second busiest in Georgia. “I was thrilled when he got this job because I knew that he was the right person for it,” Dr. Whipple said of Hasbrouck’s Vidalia position.
Another impetus for Dr. Whipple’s return to Meadows was because HCA Healthcare had assumed ownership of the regional medical center. “In the past I was asked to do bariatrics here, but I was adamant that I would not unless bariatric care was covered in healthcare benefits for employees of the hospital. That was a sticking point for me.” When HCA Healthcare took over, that issue was resolved. There was also a big change in bariatric medicine in Georgia starting in January 2022. At that time, Georgia was one of six states that did not cover bariatric surgery for state employees. During the last recession, in 2020, when money got tight, the benefit was suspended. “I remember that (PA) Jody (Hannah) and I operated close to midnight on the last day of coverage that year because we had state employees approved for surgery who after midnight no longer had those benefits.” The Georgia Chapter of the American Society of Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery took up the cause, and Dr. Whipple accompanied bariatric surgeon Dr. Renee Hilton to the state Capitol in February 2020 where they had a productive meeting with the governor that led to reinstating bariatric surgery as a benefit for state employees.
“It is still OK to consider obesity not a disease and to be prejudiced against people that are obese and deny access to the one medical procedure shown to be effective against obesity. That is still somewhat socially acceptable,” Dr. Whipple said of the struggle to reinstate the benefit. Hasbrouck said of Dr. Whipple, “Having him here was a goal of mine. He is a tremendous clinician, colleague, and friend.” In addition, Hasbrouck noted, “I am very proud of what this team and organization continue to accomplish together for the betterment of our community. We have big town medicine right here — close to home.”