Cracking jokes and cracking chests

Originally published on March 18, 2016 on


It took Kathy Magliato, M.D., three tries to write the book that eventually became the basis for the new NBC series Heartbeat, which premieres March 23.

First, she tried writing a fact-driven book about heart disease and the risk it poses to women. But the book, she now concedes, was “dry” and the topic had been covered numerous times elsewhere.

So she tried to pepper it with interesting and enlightening anecdotes from her experience as one of only a handful of female heart surgeons practicing today. Better, but those who read the manuscript told her they wanted to learn more about her story, too.

And that’s when the book, eventually titled Heart Matters: A Memoir of a Female Heart Surgeon, became the full-fledged memoir that Magliato says she hopes will inspire young people, especially young girls, to pursue careers in medicine as well as STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – fields. Publishers Weekly called the memoir “amazing.”

NBCUNIVERSAL EVENTS -- NBCUniversal Press Tour, January 2016 -- NBC's "Heartbeat" Session -- Pictured: Dr. Kathy Magliato, Co-Executive Producer -- (Photo by: Chris Haston/NBCUniversal)

Now Magliato is preparing for the fourth incarnation of her book, as a primetime TV show starring Melissa George as Magliato’s alter ego, the talented but unorthodox heart transplant surgeon Alex Panttiere.

“The show is loosely based on and inspired by my own life,” said Magliato, who today is director of women’s cardiac services at Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “The producers, I think, have captured my humor and quirkiness, but also my conviction to fight for my patients.”

Of course, TV rarely leaves well enough alone, so Magliato’s quirkiness has been exaggerated.

In the show, airing Wednesdays at 8 p.m. Eastern, Alex’s ex-husband Max, played by Joshua Leonard, has come out as gay and is the primary caregiver of their two children. She works at a hospital with ex-boyfriend Dr. Jessie Shane (Don Hany) as well as her current one Dr. Pierce Harrison (Dave Annable, whom Magliato calls “the new McDreamy”) who wants things to get more serious than she does.

If the personal stuff is heightened dramatically, the medicine portrayed on the show is entirely plausible, according to executive producer Amy Brenneman.

“We do cool, cutting-edge stuff,” she said. “In one episode Alex does something where the patient’s body [temperature] is dropped to the point where they stop breathing and there’s no heartbeat or brain activity.”

Called hypothermic circulatory arrest, the procedure temporarily stops blood circulation during aortic surgery, and patients can remain in this state for up to 40 minutes.

The show isn’t all seriousness. Magliato and Brenneman both separately used the term “dramedy” to define the tone.

In one scene, for example, Alex gushes, “I love the smell of lung burning first thing in the morning.”

“We didn’t want to do just a hard-charging medical drama,” explained Brenneman, who created and starred in Judging Amy. “We wanted to portray the humor, often the gallows humor that doctors need in order to get through the things they often see and do.”

So will the show do what Magliato wanted her book to do? Will it help inspire a generation of young people to pursue the hard sciences, including medicine?

“Absolutely,” Magliato said. “I often say women can’t be what they can’t see. Young girls need to know they can be anything they want to be.”