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A Legacy of Giving: Major Gift to Watauga Medical Center in Memory of Dr. Al Petti

Chris Petti

When Chris Petti visited her parents’ Avery County cabin as a teen, she didn’t realize just how much the North Carolina mountains would impact her. Nor could she foresee how she and her husband, Dr. Al Petti, would make their own impact on the community.

Before Dr. Petti passed away in 2019 Chris remembers a friend saying, “There are no pockets in coffins. You can’t take it with you, so spread the good around.” And that’s what the Pettis spent more than 40 years doing in the High Country.

At the pinnacle of a lifetime of philanthropy, Chris is still living by the friend’s advice today, but now she says, “is the time to do bigger and better things.” Because Dr. Petti spent many years as an innovative orthopedic surgeon, Chris has chosen to honor his legacy with a $1 million gift to the Appalachian Regional Healthcare Foundation toward a new, ultramodern orthopedic program at Watauga Medical Center. A part of the orthopedic expansion project will bear the Petti name as a tribute to their history of medical excellence and community advancement.

The roots of medical innovation

Back in Broward County, Florida, Dr. Petti was the first doctor to perform total joint replacement surgeries, while Chris served as a registered nurse in the pediatric ward at the regional hospital. When demand for orthopedic surgeries outpaced operating room availability, Dr. Petti and two other doctors built a new hospital and orthopedic practice. Chris eventually received her nurse practitioner certification and worked together with her husband.

In the late 1970s, when Charles A. Cannon, Jr. Memorial Hospital (Cannon) was still located in Banner Elk, the Pettis purchased a home next door to fellow orthopedic surgeon Dr. Gary Welliver.

Dr. Petti received special privileges to practice at Cannon and would work together with Dr. Welliver on challenging cases. Dr. Petti soon became known as the “white house physician,” because their house was white – but also, as Chris puts it, because “he never met a person he didn’t want to help.” Friends and neighbors routinely sought his recommendations for medical care.

Helping the community grow

Having spent every summer here since 1979, Chris said, “I feel this is my home. I’ve watched it grow.” They not only watched it grow; they helped it grow.

“When we moved here, there was no grocery store,” Chris said with a chuckle. “You needed dry cleaning? Forget about it. You wanted a donut? That wasn’t happening.” The only restaurant at the time was The Tack Room in Foscoe, and there was increasing sentiment in Banner Elk that they needed a restaurant as well. So, the Pettis built the structure known as “the Petti Building” and persuaded legendary chef Fabian Botta to open Louisiana Purchase, now home to the Blind Elk Tap Room.

In the coming years, the Pettis encouraged many entrepreneurs and restaurateurs to come to Avery County, and Chris is delighted to see how much there is to do now – restaurants, music, theater, and more.

Chris and her husband, Dr. Al Petti

First brushes with medical care in the High Country

Chris Petti’s introduction to Watauga Medical Center was through the Seby B. Jones Regional Cancer Center in 1999, when she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. Chris had the means and opportunity to go anywhere for her cancer care, but she chose to complete her first nine months of chemotherapy in Boone.

“I want to be at my home in the mountains, where the air is pure and clear,” Chris told her friends who thought she should be going to a big-name facility in a larger city. “I was extremely pleased with my care,” she said, “And I knew I could get everything I needed right here.”

“They were phenomenal,” Chris said, “And when I went back to Florida to continue my chemotherapy, I was very disappointed.” She found the care at the Seby B. Jones Regional Cancer Center to be clinically excellent, but also caring, kind, loving, and “not what you would find at a large institution.”

Chris has found that same level of care throughout the services offered by Appalachian Regional Healthcare System.

Several years ago, she had gall bladder surgery in Florida and had arrived at their mountain home when she became very sick. For months, none of her doctors could tell her what was happening.

Rejecting the idea of traveling back to Florida, Chris saw Dr. David Kimmel, whom she says was at ease, calm, and knew exactly what was wrong. He prescribed medications that cured her months-long illness, and he has been her primary care provider ever since.

She is also a patient of Dr. Andrew Hordes at the Heart and Vascular Center of Watauga Medical Center, and is especially pleased that they have recently expanded cardiac catheterization to 24/7 coverage. Most patients can now stay at Watauga Medical Center for life-saving treatment any time of the day or night. “If you have a cardiac event, you need to get care quickly,” she said.

Bloom where you’re planted

In the past, access to primary care physicians was a barrier, but Chris insists that finding a local physician is important even for residents who are here for only six months of the year, “If you are in the mountains and you have a problem, you need a doctor. You need to find a doctor and be established,” she advises.

And now, exceptional primary care is easier than ever to access in the High Country with the growth of Elk River Medical Associates, Baker Center for Primary Care, AppFamily Medicine, and MAHEC Rural Family Medicine Residency Program, and the addition of same-day appointments and walk-in hours.

Chris has been a long-time supporter and ambassador of Appalachian Regional Healthcare System throughout her time in the High Country, serving with the Pretty in Pink fundraiser and making other donations. But in this phase of life she wants to help position Watauga Medical Center to rival any other hospital in terms of modern technology, advancements, facilities, and people.

Her generous contribution to the orthopedic wing, was not for personal recognition, but to show her support for the project. Her hope is that the community will see there are people who care and will be inspired to join in her giving.

“When I heard about the new orthopedic wing, I thought that would be a perfect match. I realized I could help in a more extensive way than ever before,” said Chris. “The High Country is such a close-knit community, and knowing the people involved makes it personal to me. I’m not just giving a corporate gift, but I’m giving to people who will carry on a quality of care that will honor my husband’s memory and make us proud.”

For more information about the Watauga Medical Center Expansion Project, and how to get involved, visit apprhs.org/higherelevation.