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Parents’ endowment keeps compassionate doctor’s work alive

Published on Thursday, February 18, 2016

By: Gary Pettus at 601-815-9266 or gpettus@umc.edu.

Published in News Stories on February 18, 2016

Three dollars and 30 cents. That was the cost of the prescription - for one drop. 

One drop per night. One bottle per month. $99 per bottle.

The woman who needed it had no medical insurance and very little income; she was too young to qualify for Social Security. And glaucoma was threatening to blind her in one eye.

Hearing her story, her physician reached into a supply of bottles and drew out a handful. She told the woman to take them home. No charge. A few months later, this happened again.

Which may be all you need to know about Dr. Toni Jill Bertolet. But there's much more.


Dr. Toni Bertolet
Dr. Toni Bertolet

She was an aspiring doctor at age 3, a medical doctor at age 26, and an accomplished doctor long before her death at age 50.

Four years ago, the Mississippi native, an ophthalmologist who earned her M.D. at the Medical Center in 1988, was the victim of a tragic accident in her adopted state of Colorado. The circumstances of her death will be the subject of a two-hour “Dateline” segment airing Feb. 26 on NBC.

But her work carries on, through the Toni J. Bertolet, M.D. Endowment, established in her honor by her parents to benefit the Department of Ophthalmology and, in turn, Mississippians whose eyesight might otherwise suffer.

Bob and Yvonne Bertolet of Ridgeland brought up a studious, level-headed daughter who, nonetheless, had a romantic and compassionate streak - she loved rainbows - and hated suffering of any kind.

“You might come in with an eye problem,” Bob Bertolet said, “but she might also counsel you about your other problems. And it was uncanny how she could communicate with small children.”

Her insight into her patients' struggles went beyond their physical grievances, said Yvonne Bertolet. “She felt their other pain as well, and they would wonder, 'How could she know that about me?'”

She demonstrated her empathy for others early on. On the basketball court, she would run to a stricken player, her mother said, including a player on the other team.

Although she was born in Jackson, she grew up in Natchez, attending Trinity Day School, where she also shone as a long-distance runner and, especially, as a student.

“She wanted to get A's - not because she wanted to outdo others,” Bob Bertolet said, “but because she wanted to be the very best she could be.”

At Trinity, she lettered in high school basketball. She graduated as Most Outstanding Senior before excelling at Ole Miss as a student leader who finished summa cum laude in 1984 and was named to Who's Who Among Students in American Universities and Colleges. She was inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa Honorary Society.

Ole Miss was also the alma mater of her mother and her two brothers: Todd Bertolet of Ridgeland, now a petroleum geologist, and the oldest of the three, Dr. Barry Bertolet, today a cardiologist in Tupelo.

At one time, the siblings were in Oxford together, and two of Toni's and Barry's years in medical school overlapped.

“They lived in the same apartment building,” Yvonne Bertolet said. “One time, Toni's phone went out, and Barry told her, 'If you get into any trouble, just run your vacuum cleaner.' She had a really loud vacuum cleaner and if he heard it, he'd come running.

“Todd and Barry were protective of her, and she was protective of them, even though Barry was older than her. She loved her brothers.”

She also loved to sing. “She had an excellent voice,” said her father. She expressed this love throughout her life as an alto in several choirs, mostly in the churches where she worshipped.

A person of faith, she was the first physician, according to her parents, to volunteer for First Baptist Church's Mission First in Jackson, which provides the less fortunate with free legal and medical aid.

She also contributed her wisdom regularly to the online site, GotQuestions.org, a volunteer ministry that answers questions people post about their beliefs - such as, “Is there meaning in tragedy?”

Dr. Toni Bertolet is hooded by Dr. Carl Evers after she received her Doctor of Medicine diploma in 1988.
Dr. Toni Bertolet is hooded by Dr. Carl Evers after she received her Doctor of Medicine diploma in 1988.

At the Medical Center, she graduated magna cum laude in 1988 before completing a one-year internship and a three-year residency in ophthalmology. During her final year, she was chief resident and performed research with Dr. C.J. Chen, who would eventually serve as chair of the department for 15 years.

“She was remarkable, the most disciplined resident I ever taught,” Chen said. “She was so well-dressed, so properly dressed, it would make you feel sloppy by comparison.

“She made sure that when a patient was seen, everything was taken care of before she reported to the attending. She said ophthalmology was a fascinating specialty. From cataracts to infectious diseases of the eye, she would be able to take care of entire families, three generations of the same family.”

Her research with Chen involved working with live rabbits. She would often visit the lab on weekends to make sure they were being taken care of. “She was so reliable,” Chen said.

“As a physician, she was an advocate for the patient. She was a very skilled surgeon, and a very good human being. We all miss her.”

In 1992, she became a non-paid clinical assistant professor of ophthalmology, a position she held officially for the rest of her life, and a connection she never severed, even after she moved from her home state.

“I was a little bit surprised when she left,” Chen said. “I always thought she would stay in Mississippi.”

After finishing her residency, she did stay in Mississippi for about a decade. During her first marriage, she worked for a short time in Meridian before returning to Jackson, where she practiced from 1992 until around 2002, adding for a time a satellite practice in Vicksburg.

Her move to the Denver, Colorado, area followed her second marriage, to Harold Henthorn. Apparently, she enjoyed her new life out West. In the Highlands Ranch suburb, she joined the Cherry Hills Community Church, where she sang in the choir and taught Sunday school.

A sports and outdoor enthusiast, she worked for a time for the National Hockey League's Colorado Avalanche as the team ophthalmologist. But, because of a bad knee injury, she had to restrict herself to golfing, swimming and walking.

It was to Colorado, around 2010, that a woman named Randy McCarty traveled from Nebraska to care for her ill sister. McCarty had troubles of her own. She was the patient diagnosed with glaucoma, the one without health insurance, the one who couldn't pay for the medicine that could save half her eyesight.

McCarty knew her physician as Dr. Henthorn. “When I told her I couldn't afford the eye drops, Dr. Henthorn took a handful of samples and gave them to me,” McCarty said. “The bottles lasted for months. That's what brought the pressure down in my eye. She took good care of me.”

McCarty, who has since moved back to Omaha, qualifies for Medicare now. She's better able to afford her medication. “But I believe if Dr. Henthorn had not given me those bottles, if she hadn't done that for me, I would be in horrible shape,” she said.

The physician built a loyal following, if the honors she received are any indication: two Patients' Choice Awards and the Compassionate Doctor Award from Vitals.com, an online physician research tool.

In 2006, she was named one of the country's Top Ophthalmologists by the Consumers' Research Council of America.

A year earlier, she had given birth to her daughter Haley, who was 7 when her mother died.

The story behind that tragedy was revealed last November in an episode of CBS' “48 Hours” and, apparently, more details are forthcoming with the “Dateline” broadcast this month.

In December, Toni Bertolet's husband, Harold Henthorn, received a mandatory life sentence for her death. The jury found the alleged fall from a cliff in Rocky Mountain National Park was not an accident, but a homicide.

During the sentencing, her brother Barry read a statement in court written by their brother Todd: “This trial was about the last moment in Toni's life and the moment that Toni took her last breath. To Toni Bertolet's … family, her friends and the people for whom she cared, Toni's life was about the moments that took their breath away.”

In January of this year, a letter from Omaha arrived in Tupelo, one of many like it written since Toni Bertolet's death: “Only recently did I learn how she died,” the letter said. “I'm a Christian and I know Toni is with the Lord but I know that doesn't ease the pain.

“I want Haley to know that her mother most likely saved my eyesight. Dr. Bertolet went above and beyond for me and I'm truly grateful.”

The letter was signed by Randy McCarty. She sent it to Dr. Barry Bertolet, to his Tupelo address - Haley's home now, too.

In a way, the family Toni Bertolet left behind hasn't let her go. When her parents see a rainbow, they see her.

And, from time to time, her old basketball jacket is worn by an 11-year-old girl who wants to be a doctor and loves to sing.


To contribute to the Bertolet endowment:

To make a tax-deductible gift to the Toni J. Bertolet, M.D. Endowment, go to https://www.umc.edu/tonibertoletendowment/ or call Dr. Sheila Henderson in the UMMC Office of Development at (601) 815-3302 or email her at sahenderson@umc.edu. If making a donation by check, please mail your gift to the University of Mississippi Medical Center, Office of Development, 2500 N. State St., Jackson MS 39216.