Heart Matters: A Memoir of a Female Heart Surgeon

Heart Matters: A Memoir of a Female Heart Surgeon

by Kathy Magliato M.D.


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An inspiring, surprising, sometimes shocking, and ultimately deeply informative memoir of the high-stakes, high-pressured life of a female heart surgeon.
 Dr. Kathy Magliato is one of the few female heart surgeons practicing in the world today. She is also a member of an even more exclusive group—those surgeons specially trained to perform heart transplants. Heart Matters is the story of the making of a surgeon who is also a wife and mother. In this powerful and moving memoir, Dr. Magliato takes us into her highly demanding, physically intense, male-dominated world and shows us how she masterfully works to save patients' lives every day, while also maintaining balance at home. Heart Matters is also a wake-up call to all women about their number one killer - heart disease - and explains how to avoid becoming a victim.

Magliato offers a vivid behind-the-scenes view of what really goes on in an operating room and the real-life drama that occurs there. She shows the passion and commitment between patient and doctor, revealing that, at the end of a long day, it's our hearts that matter most.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780767930277
Publisher: Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale
Publication date: 01/11/2011
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 519,596
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Kathy E. Magliato, MD, is currently the director of women’s cardiac services at Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. She lives in Pacific Palisades with her husband and their two children.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: Every Sixty Seconds
MAT: Magliato-Adjusted Time. It’s Greenwich Mean time adjusted for the atomic clock plus twenty minutes. Which means it’s your time plus twenty minutes. It’s the clock I run on except, of course, when it’s an emergency. Then I am there in a heartbeat (pun intended). Otherwise, it’s whatever time you say you want me there—for dinner, for a playdate with the kids, for an eyebrow waxing—plus twenty minutes. And don’t roll your eyes at me when I get there. You’re lucky that I even showed up at all.

• • •

It was a still spring morning. The kind of morning that makes you yearn to be lazy. To languish in the comfort of your home while sipping coffee outside and smelling the morning ocean breeze of the Palisades, salt mixed with night- blooming jasmine. How I wish I could be lazy. Just once. When my alarm clock goes off at 5:03 a.m. (I always set it for an odd number), it’s like a starter pistol for my day—assuming I ever went to sleep in the first place.

So I found myself that morning running on MAT. I desperately wanted to drop my son at school so I could maintain at least some semblance of motherhood. We were running late by everyone else’s standards—twenty minutes late. I was surrounded by signs of road rage everywhere as I was trying to make my way safely to Nicholas’s school. Everyone was on a cell phone, everyone was blowing a horn in a cacophony of rage, everyone was pissed off, everyone was yelling or gesturing to a neighboring car, and everyone was driving while intoxicated on Starbucks sugar- free vanilla lattes with regular milk. Yes, it was a typical three- mile commute to my son’s school. My only hope was that there would be no accident so I would at least stand a chance of getting to school before they were singing the good- bye song under the good- bye tree. If there was to be a motor vehicle accident that day, perhaps it would be between two organ donors so that the whole day wouldn’t be a wash.

I was making my way through an intersection on San Vicente Boulevard when a guy holding a cell phone under his chin, a coffee in his left hand, shifting with the right hand, driving with his knees while blowing his horn with his left elbow, and yes, folks, flipping another driver off with the middle finger of his free shifting hand nearly struck me. Multitasking at its best—and worst. I careened out of the way, missing him and the joggers and bicyclists along the side of the road (don’t those people have jobs?). In the process, however, I spilled my coffee, which I had been balancing between my thighs (a trick my husband taught me), all over my lap. My entire car smelled like coffee and my thighs were on fire. Great. What else could go wrong today?


It does that incessantly, you know, until you retrieve the page and turn it off. It’s a sound that makes blood run from my ears. The first page of the day and it was from the cardiac catheterization lab, or cath lab as we call it, which is where patients get an angiogram to look for blockages in their coronary arteries. It is a place of pain and discovery for me and the patients. Thankfully, I was just pulling into the parking lot of the hospital when my pager went off.

The call was about a female pediatric patient who was having a heart attack. Pediatric, by my standards, is a patient in their thirties or forties, since most of our cardiac patients are well into their eighties and nineties. She was having a cardiac arrest, meaning that her heart had ceased to beat, and she was undergoing CPR. Any other information about her was irrelevant to me, including her name. I needed to get to the cath lab stat and further information over the phone would have just delayed me, as I can sprint from the parking lot faster with the phone on my belt clip than at my ear. Little did I know at the time that I would have the next three months to get to know everything about her and her family.

• • •

Dorothy was a vibrant forty-seven year-old woman who successfully balanced raising six children while holding down a full-time job as a nurse for a gastroenterologist. She carried stress around like an American Express card. She never left home without it. It was her constant companion and she learned to just “live with it.” It was simply woven into the fabric of her being.

For several months, she had been experiencing indigestion—a gnawing pain located in her upper abdomen, which was worsened by stress and relieved with rest at night. Recently, however, she was even waking at night with indigestion and kept a constant supply of antacids at her bedside, which she chewed like candy throughout the night. She told the gastroenterologist for whom she worked about her symptoms and he said, “It’s probably an ulcer caused by stress. You should have an endoscopy to check it out.” When all you have is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail.

She was admitted to the hospital the following week for an upper gastrointestinal endoscopy—a simple outpatient procedure that uses a scope to look at the esophagus, stomach, and proximal small intestine. The gastroenterologist felt that as long as she was having an upper endoscopy, she might as well have a lower endoscopy, or colonoscopy, during the same appointment. It would be a waste of time and anesthesia not to check for colon cancer.

Her upper endoscopy was performed and found to be normal. Her lower endoscopy didn’t go as smoothly. Inadvertently, her colon was perforated during the examination and a general surgeon was called to evaluate Dorothy. She required urgent surgery to repair the small hole in her colon. The abdominal surgery was straightforward and went well. Dorothy would make a full recovery and be out of the hospital in a few days. Or so she thought. But less than twelve hours later, while seeming to recover, Dorothy had a massive heart attack. She had the type of heart attack that, in medicine, we nickname “the widow maker” because it does one thing: It kills. No one had bothered to ask Dorothy about her risk factors for heart disease. She had four. No one bothered to check her preprocedure EKG. It was abnormal. Why not? She was young. She was otherwise healthy. She was only having a “minor procedure” to look for an ulcer. But 1 in every 2.4 women will die from cardiovascular illness. Put another way, if you are reading this book and there is a woman seated on either side of you, look to your left. Look to your right. One and possibly two of you will succumb to heart disease. The American Heart Association estimates that one woman in the United States dies every sixty seconds from cardiovascular disease. In other words, the widow maker prefers women.

Dorothy was rushed to the cardiac catheterization lab for an emergency angiogram to evaluate the status of her coronary arteries—the arteries that bring life- giving blood to the heart. During an angiogram, dye is injected into the arteries and traces the path of blood flow. Like a road map, it reveals where the blockages are.

And there it was. The widow-maker lesion that causes a blockage in the main artery of the heart that essentially eliminates blood flow to the entire front and left side of the heart. Death takes on many forms, great and small. In this case, death was a three- millimeter collection of calcium, fat, and platelets beyond which no blood flowed.

By the time I arrived at the cath lab, Dorothy had arrested three more times. From the viewing room just outside the cath lab, I watched the team work to resuscitate her with the same efficiency as a NASCAR pit crew. Clear! Shock. Chest compressions. Adrenalin injection. Breathe. Repeat. And so the battle goes.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Love at First Touch 1

1 Every Sixty Seconds 5

2 The Persistent Heart 19

3 Oh, Nurse!: The Birth of a Surgeon 32

4 The Hand of a Lady 46

5 Drop-dead Gorgeous 62

6 Boys Will Be Boys 70

7 Fire and Ice 86

8 Sex and the Surgeon 93

9 One of the Girls 103

10 We've Come a Long Way, Baby 119

11 Dead on Arrival 127

12 Jackson Pollock 135

13 The Bionic Woman 147

14 Torn Apart 158

15 The Seat of the Soul 169

16 Where Have All the Good Times Gone? 179

17 Atypical Weekend 192

18 Kids Are Alright 204

19 Healing Robots 218

20 Just Breathe 227

21 Pressure 238

Epilogue 247

Acknowledgments 251

Appendix 1 Heart Disease by the Numbers 255

Appendix 2 How to Avoid "Going Under the Knife" 259


1. How did Dr. Magliato’s upbringing influence her career choice?

2. Were you surprised by the challenges Dr. Magliato faced as a woman in the male-dominated world of cardiac surgery?  How would you have reacted to some of the sexist comments and inappropriate advances she describes?

3. What techniques did Dr. Magliato use to gain respect from her colleagues?  What is her “full-metal jacket” and did this make her a better or worse surgeon?

4. At the beginning of chapter 9, Dr. Magliato comments, “The hardest thing to do is to be one of the girls when you’re one of the guys.”  How does Dr. Magliato relate to other women in her field?  Do you think she needed to be “one of the guys” in order to succeed as a cardiac surgeon?  How does she maintain her femininity?

5. How did Dr. Magliato navigate the dating world?  Do you think men were impressed by or intimidated by Dr. Maglatio’s success? 

6. Describe Dr. Magliato’s relationship with her husband, Nick.  What are the advantages and disadvantages to her decision to marry a fellow doctor?

7. How does Dr. Magliato manage to balance her family and her demanding career?  Do you think she is typical of most working mothers?

8. Healing Hearts gives us an inside glimpse of various heart patients who have gone under Dr. Magliato’s knife.  Was there a particular patient’s story who stuck with you?  How did Dr. Magliato relate to her patients?

9. How does Dr. Magliato’s faith influence her work as a doctor?

10. What does Dr. Magliato think about ourcurrent health system?  Why is she worried about the future of cardiac surgery?

11. Based on the statistics in Appendix 1, were you surprised that more women die each year from cardiovascular disease than from all cancers combined?  Do you think that women are more aware of the risk of heart disease or cancer?

12. In the book, Dr. Magliato provides various facts about heart disease, particularly as it effects affects women.  Were you familiar with the symptoms a woman has when she suffers a heart attack?  What are the numbers that Dr. Magliato recommends you know? 

13. Do you know someone with heart disease?  How did this book change your understanding of the disease?

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Heart Matters: A Memoir of a Female Heart Surgeon 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Stephanie Martin More than 1 year ago
I read this book in 2 days. I couldn't put it down. Not only was the personal story interesting, but the educatonal aspect was very eye opening. I am a Registered Nurse and was not aware of the statistics concerning women and heart disease. I wish there were more women in this profession. We need some allies to turn things around concerning awareness.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
How anyone can do all that this wonderful woman has done seems impossible. The health information for women included in this book is so necessary . .thank you for a terrific read, your sense of humor is terrific!
Anonymous 7 months ago
84fxstc More than 1 year ago
She is not only an amazing women she is also a great doctor, I learned more about Congestive Heart Failure. I did not realize how much can go wrong with that part of the body.
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