Ray Harper of Amory trusts his cardiologist, Barry Bertolet, M.D., with his life. That’s a good thing—because Dr. Bertolet and his colleagues at the North Mississippi Medical Center Heart and Vascular Institute have come through for Ray several times.
Dr. Bertolet has been Ray’s cardiologist since he first began practicing in Tupelo in 1997, not long after Ray’s first open heart surgery. During a routine checkup in 2021, Dr. Bertolet found plaque built up in Ray’s carotid arteries (the blood vessels located on each side of his neck) that was restricting blood flow to his brain and putting him at high risk for stroke. He referred Ray to heart and vascular surgeon Joey Stinson, M.D., who scheduled surgery to remove the plaque and restore blood flow.
Before the procedure, Ray was placed on a heart monitor that detected his erratic heart rhythm. “The staff went crazy rushing around,” Ray says. “I had been telling everyone for weeks that my heart sometimes would flutter, but it never would happen when they were checking it. This time it did.” Usually, Ray’s abnormal heart rhythm, which is caused by a condition known as atrial fibrillation, would correct itself, but not this time. Dr. Bertolet performed a procedure known as cardioversion to shock Ray’s heart back into a normal rhythm.
Because atrial fibrillation and blocked carotid arteries are a “double whammy” for stroke risk, Dr. Stinson put Ray’s surgery on hold. He began taking blood thinning medication to treat the atrial fibrillation. Unbeknownst to all, the perfect storm was brewing.
While camping a few weeks later, Ray started exhibiting symptoms of a stroke and was rushed to NMMC. In the Emergency Department, doctors determined that it was not a stroke causing his symptoms but rather a dangerously low blood count exacerbated by blood thinner. As soon as he was stable enough, Dr. Stinson performed the carotid artery surgery.
Now blood flow was improved, but the atrial fibrillation still needed to be addressed and blood thinner was obviously not a good option for Ray. Dr. Bertolet referred Ray to cardiac electrophysiologist Jim Stone, M.D., for a Watchman procedure. The Watchman device serves as a plug, sealing part of the heart to keep large blood clots from entering the bloodstream. The Watchman procedure took less than an hour in NMMC’s Electrophysiology Laboratory, and Ray went home the next day.