One of World’s Only Female Heart Surgeons Sits Down for a Heart-to-Heart Talk
By JACQUELINE PRIMO | Reporter
In her violet-blue surgical scrubs and wedge heels with shoulder-length blonde hair and matte black-manicured nails, and carrying a pink tote bag, Dr. Kathy Magliato had a commanding presence as she greeted the Palisadian-Post with a strong handshake and an engaging smile.
As one of the few female heart surgeons in the world (and in the history of heart surgery), the El Medio Bluffs resident Dr. Kathy Magliato attracts respect and admiration wherever she goes—throughout her field and beyond.
Over coffee last week, Magliato, director of Women’s Cardiac Services at St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica and president of the American Heart Association Greater LA Division board, discussed her standing as one of the only female cardiothoracic surgeons in history…as well as her daily routine.
She and husband Nicholas Nissen, MD, surgical director of Liver Transplantation at Cedars-Sinai, begin their Palisades mornings as early as four or five a.m. each day. It’s often the only chance they get to talk before heading to their respective operating rooms.
“We have our coffee on the bluff and catch up on our days. We’re very blessed to live in the Palisades,” Magliato—erstwhile heart/lung transplant surgeon and director of the Mechanical Assist Device Program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center—told the Post.
“We wanted the small-town feel in the midst of LA. I felt a sense of community here that I felt was lacking everywhere else we looked. It’s a safe, wholesome environment to raise the kids,” Magliato continued.
The couple’s sons Nicholas, 12, and Gabriel, 10, currently attend St. Matthew’s Parish School, and while juggling work and parenthood, Magliato managed to make the time to pen her 2010 memoir “Heart Matters: A Memoir of a Female Heart Surgeon.” The book, which has fluttered the hearts of readers far and wide while educating them on the reality of heart disease in women, became the source inspiration for “Heartbreaker,” a dramatization of Magliato’s career as a cutthroat, no-holds-barred yet tender-hearted female heart transplant surgeon, airing on television Tuesdays this fall. The one-hour NBC drama, which started shooting July 27 at Universal Studios and is slated for 13 episodes in its first season, stars Melissa George as the Magliato-inspired Dr. Alexandra Panttiere.
Like Magliato, Dr. Panttiere resides in Pacific Palisades and the real Magliato makes a cameo in the show’s pilot.
On a warm late-July afternoon, the doctor told the Post how she has accumulated so many stories over the years as a cardiothoracic surgeon, which will inform the series, as will her upstate New York back story.
FROM APPLE ORCHARD TO O.R.
Growing up as the second oldest of five children on a farm in the New York village of Highland, Magliato had a solid work ethic watered into her roots from a very young age.
“We lived on a 50 acre apple orchard and that meant one thing—hard work,” Magliato wrote in her memoir, detailing how while her father worked for IBM, her family was always tight on money. Every member had to pitch in to make ends meet.
“There was no playing after school. Just work. Berry-hooking. Weeding. Fertilizing,” Magliato recalled in “Heart Matters.” “I never really felt poor though, because what we lacked around our home was made up for in love and an unfailing pride instilled in us by our parents.”
As a teenager, Magliato threw herself whole-heartedly into her early jobs with the same amount of gumption she had applied to balancing farm life with schoolwork.
However, the work she claims was responsible for altering the course of her life was as a janitor at a nursing home. Not only did the job put her in close contact with doctors, but having a female supervisor awakened her to the idea that women could be bosses.
“So I got this idea in my 16-year-old head that if women could be bosses and figures of authority, then maybe women could be doctors,” Magliato stated, noting that while she was instantly fascinated with watching the doctors at the nursing home, there had never been a doctor on either side of her family. She admittedly was nervous to tell anybody about her newfound aspiration to become one herself.
The constant encouragement and undying support of her parents led her to believe that she could achieve anything—with hard work, of course.
All that hard work included 16 years of higher education—medical school, a medical internship, residencies and fellowships. In her spare time, she also earned an Executive MBA from the UCLA Anderson School of Management. “I wanted to do something just for me,” Magliato said of the MBA.
“LOVE AT FIRST TOUCH”
“It was a crazy, hectic day. Just like all the others,” Magliato wrote in her memoir’s introduction, chronicling the day she fell in love with the human heart.
Magliato was a general surgery intern when a frantic nurse asked her to “scrub in” (surgeon code for the process of sanitizing and dressing for a surgery) on a cardiothoracic surgery session.
“Grab the heart and hold it steady so I can get a few stitches in the hole we have here,” Magliato recalled the doctor instructing her as she tried not to slip on the bloody operating room floor.
“It looked like a large, deformed matzo ball floating in tomato soup,” Magliato wrote of the heart she saw struggling in a pool of blood. “I reached in and firmly yet gently closed my hand around the heart and around my future,” Magliato writes in her book. “…That was it for me. Love at first sight. Love at first touch. I knew that this was exactly what I wanted. To touch the human heart every day.”
Since that moment, Magliato has made it her mission to keep people off of her operating table by educating them on heart disease: how to prevent it and how to recognize it.
“Heart disease is the number one killer of women,” she told the Post. “It kills more women than all cancer combined. Forty-four percent of women die from heart disease in the U.S.; that’s one in every 2.4 women. It’s the number one killer in the world, but is 80% preventable if we understood the symptoms and risk factors and took care of ourselves.”
In addition to literally touching human hearts and saving lives as a cardiothoracic surgeon, Magliato has figuratively touched the hearts and lives of countless women by telling her story in “Heart Matters.”
The book is filled with “very difficult, tragic, poignant stories about women I’ve taken care of throughout my career but who have died from heart disease,” Magliato said. She said she wanted to tell the story of heart disease in women “to honor my patients, to let them live through their story.”
“At its core you learn about heart disease in women, hear patients’ stories, and around that is my story,” she said.
Magliato added that her book has inspired women to go into career fields classically dominated by males and, perhaps more importantly, encouraged women to see their cardiologists and make lifestyle changes that could ultimately prevent heart disease.
“I hope when I die people say, ‘She lived a useful life,’” Magliato said.
“To be of use and touch the lives of everyone around you—that’s what doctors do. Yes, we heal; yes, we hopefully save, but in the end, we’re touching another human life.”
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