Alumnus finds success at the heart of the matter

Dr. William Harris, a Mississippi State University graduate in biological engineering, is the only cardiothoracic surgeon in Mississippi, Arkansas or Louisiana to perform mitral valve repairs with a da Vinci robot. Part of Baptist Health Systems in Jackson, he is one of a group of five doctors and a nurse practitioner providing a team approach to cardiac-patient care.

As an elementary school student in Jackson, William Harris habitually checked out any book that contained photographs of heart surgeries.
Not only did the images fascinate him but so did reading passages about how the heart works and how to make it work better. That’s when Harris started to realize he wanted to be either a surgeon or an engineer.
As it turns out, he’s both.

Now a cardiovascular surgeon for Mississippi Baptist Health Systems in Jackson, the Mississippi State graduate has made a name for himself as the only doctor in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi using a da Vinci robot for mitral valve repairs.

Often wearing an MSU head cover as he operates or walks through the halls of Baptist Medical Center, Harris has never forgotten his Bulldog roots. In fact, he seeks ways to advocate for the educational value of the university he loves, as well as the quality of medical care one can receive in the state he calls home.

“There’s this idea that you have to go to big cities, like Cleveland (Ohio) or Los Angeles, to have certain things done,” Harris explained. “A lot of doctors keep sending those operations out to those places, and it undermines the medical field in this state. There’s nothing medically you can get anywhere else that you can’t get in Mississippi.”

Harris earned a bachelor’s degree in biological engineering in 1988 and completed his medical studies four years later at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson. After serving residencies for both general and cardiothoracic surgery at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, he returned to Jackson in 2001 and ultimately partnered with a medical team of four other doctors—three of whom are also MSU grads—and a nurse practitioner working under the Baptist banner.

Having performed 550 heart operations in the last year of his UAB residency, alone, Harris already was vastly experienced with heart surgeries by the time he returned to Mississippi. At that time he began researching and applying methods that required smaller incisions and shortened recovery time for patients. In fact, he now makes only 6-centimeter incisions for aortic valve operations, while many surgeons are still fully dividing a patient’s breastbone for that procedure.

Harris began traveling to Europe six years ago to study more minimally invasive methods to operate on the mitral valve, a small structure located between the left atrium and left ventricle of the heart.

When it leaks, as it’s prone to do, it causes mitral regurgitation, a blood volume overload that collects in the lungs and makes it difficult to breathe. If left untreated, the heart can enlarge causing congestive heart failure, but if caught quickly, a patient can be restored to normal life expectancy.

Harris controls the surgical robot from a console across the operating room as he views the video feed from a camera on one of the machine’s probes. With the hand controls, he can change the camera angle and use the robot’s other probes for surgical functions, such as cutting and sewing the valve.

Harris said operating on a mitral valve is meticulous, but it’s better to repair one than replace it.

“There’s no one way to fix a mitral valve,” he said. “It’s complicated, and there’s a lot of art to it.”

Enter da Vinci, a surgical robot. Named for the renowned Renaissance artist, it has become Harris’ go-to solution for mitral valve repair. From a console across the operating room, he remotely directs the robot through the surgeries. The five-armed machine is equipped with a camera that allows him to see the valve from the console in 3-D high-definition magnified up to 12 times. Its probes allow for precise work in small spaces.

“You have to have an exceptional team of people helping you, and I do. Every component of that team has to work perfectly to pull it off.” ~ William Harris

“It’s like having your hands in miniature inside someone,” Harris said.

A surgical team stationed at the operating table assists Harris through the surgeries, particularly with managing camera placement.

“You have to have an exceptional team of people helping you, and I do,” Harris said. “Every component of that team has to work perfectly to pull it off.”

Five incisions, each less than an inch long, allow the robotic arms to enter the body, and leave behind only five small holes. Most patients return home two to three days after the surgery, he said, and are back at work in about two weeks.

“I had a 70-year-old man go back to work in 10 days,” Harris said. “A woman who had this surgery here did a half-marathon just months after her operation.”

Dr. James L. Warnock Jr., a high school classmate and college roommate of Harris at both MSU and UMMC, works alongside him in their Baptist-affiliated partnership. As a cardiologist, Warnock diagnoses problems and handles heart catheters, stents and non-invasive procedures. Through a team approach to patient care, he said their patient outcomes rank in the 90th percentile.

“Nationwide, we’ve discovered that cardiologists and heart surgeons don’t always get along collegially,” Warnock said. “Our team approach is very helpful because it helps us avoid those issues. We all sit down together, offer different perspectives and plan procedures together.”

Having such a close friend on this medical team “has its pros and cons,” Warnock said. However, the pros far outweigh the cons.

“At the end of the day, I know his character, I know he’s extremely bright and I know he, just like all of us, wants the best outcome for the patient,” Warnock said.

In addition to the Bulldog connections in his professional life, Harris also has a strong Maroon and White tradition in his family. He joked that he might not even exist without MSU, as that’s where his parents met as students.
He explained that he and his brother spent summers in Starkville with their uncle John Correro, a former MSU football player who worked for the university for 40 years thereafter. That uncle gave the boys tear-away football practice jerseys and let them run around occasionally on Scott Field.

As a kid, Harris even sported Bulldog tennis shoes until they wore out.
With all of these connections, Mississippi State stood out among the rest when Harris was choosing a college. He said enrolling at MSU was one of the best decisions he’s ever made because not only was it a good place for him personally, but the engineering training he received prepared him perfectly for his career.

“Being a cardiovascular surgeon matches my temperament and curiosity,” Harris said. “It’s very mechanical, and the engineer in me likes that because it forces me to work through small problems until I solve the big one. I’d say I use as much of my engineering skills in this profession as I do my medical training.”

Warnock, also a biological engineering graduate, agreed. Along with cardiologists William H. Jones and H. Christopher Waterer III, both also Mississippi State graduates, the teammates are all trying to do their alma mater proud.

“People say that Mississippi State is not the place to go for pre-med,” Warnock said. “We’re proving that’s absolutely not true.”

By Zack Plair | Photos by Megan Bean