Union grad is inspiration for NBC’s ‘Heartbeat’

Dr. Kathy Magliato knows Dr. Alexandra Panttiere. Both women are on the hospital heart beat. They’re
Dr. Kathy Magliato
Dr. Kathy Magliato

Dr. Kathy Magliato knows Dr. Alexandra Panttiere.

Both women are on the hospital heart beat. They’re smart and outspoken, and want patients to walk out of their operating rooms with healthy tickers.

Here’s the difference: Magliato works in the real world while Panttiere operates on screen — as the lead character in NBC’s new medical series “Heartbeat.” Actress Melissa George plays the TV doc.

Magliato, a 1985 graduate of Union College in Schenectady, sort of looks over Panttiere’s shoulder every Wednesday night: Alexandra is based on heart-lung transplant surgeon Magliato, and “Heartbeat” is based on Magliato’s 2010 memoir “Heart Matters.”

Magliato, who has often been seen talking about heart disease on national news programs and is a Union trustee, a co-executive producer on “Heatbeat” and founder and director of a women’s health center that addresses cardiac needs of female patients at Providence Saint John’s Medical Center in Santa Monica, Calif., scrubbed in for a quick interview with The Daily Gazette. She talked television, college days and, of course, blood.

Q: One of the preview clips called the show “Heartbreaker.” Did you have anything to do with the change to “Heartbeat?”

A: It actually had four titles. The first one was “Heart Matters,” the title of my now New York Times best-selling book. I had some great signage of “Heart Matters,” all the director’s chairs, all the signage in the administrative offices. Then they changed it to “Heartbreaker.” I tried to explain to them I don’t break hearts, I mend hearts. They didn’t want “Heartmender.” Then, for the briefest of moments, it was “Queen of Hearts.” That lasted a week. And then it became “Heartbeat,” which I love, because I feel it’s just like a heart beat, a pulse, the show has a rhythm and a pulse. I said, “You know what? I like ‘Heartbeat,’ it’s all about a rhythm and a pulse.”

Q: How is Dr. Magliato different than Dr. Panttiere?

A: Aside from the fact that I’m not in a love triangle and believe me, it’s not for lack of asking my husband over and over again, “Honey, can we be in a love triangle?” I’m not in a love triangle and I don’t, at least that I’m aware of, have a gay ex-husband. But all the character are modeled in some way after someone in my life, whether it’s from someone in the past or someone in the present. The character Max, that’s the gay ex-husband, is modeled after a friend of mine, Chavez, who is like my best friend and part of our family. He’s like an uncle to my children. When I was describing this great guy in my life, they said, “OK, great, we’ll make him your best friend in the show” and then they said, “Let’s take that one step deeper.” He went from being my best friend in the show, then he was going to be my best friend and nanny in the show and then he went from that to an ex-husband who fathered my children. Trust me, my kids watch the show and said, “Is Chavez our dad?” and I’m like “No!”

Q: In the preview clip, Alex is talking to a bunch of smirking suits, and one guy asks what a heart surgeon does in her spare time. And Alex answers long walks on the beach, hot bubble baths and the “sound of cracking open a patient’s chest like a lobster.” Where did that line come from?

A: That came from Maine. I summer in Maine every August, and that’s from my love of lobster. I always talk about being a chest cracker, I say to people, “I’m going to crack you open like a lobster,” and that’s where that came from. A lot of lines come right out of my diction. When she said “epic whack” — that’s what we call a big operation — we were on set and the writer, the showrunner said, “I need something, I need a line here, I need some kind of ‘Alex-ism,’ ” which is sort of a ‘Kathy-ism.’ And I said, “Well, I’d yell ‘it’s an epic whack!’ and slam the door shut.” And that’s what she does on the show.

What is very much like me is the fact that this character Alex is fierce, she’s funny and she’s compassionate, and those three elements are something I’ve always struggled to balance in my life, and finally, after many years, learned to balance those three elements. And Melissa George learned it overnight. She’s unbelievable, she’s latched onto this character.

Q: Some of the scenes I’ve seen, it looks like there’s more blood in this show than there is in “Sons of Anarchy.” How about that?

A: The special effects guys and the props guys, they love blood. They’re like, “Oh, is there a bloody scene today?” We could literally film a scene about a hangnail and there will be a gallon of blood. But there is a lot of blood, I’ve seen my husband, (Dr. Nick Nissen, a surgeon) come home with bloody scrubs, yeah, it’s part of the reality of it. I’m really on it about authenticity in the medicine of the show. I’ve been on set while they’re filming, looking at every minute detail of that set and the way the actors are acting on that set, and I’m always helping the director tweak or refine a lot of that medicine to make it as authentic as possible. And all the cases are grounded in some element of a case, either in my life or a case in medical literature. My job is to make it all plausible.

Q: Are you a big fan of medical shows?

A: I would say yes and no. When I was in medical school, that was in Albany, I spent two years at Albany Med, what we would do was we would be studying furiously and we all would take a study break to watch “St. Elsewhere.” There was a medical student lounge, we would all crowd into the lounge and watch “St. Elsewhere.” I have great memories of Albany Med and all of us hanging out in the medical student lounge. We’d watch for an hour, that was our break, then we’d go back to study all night long.

Q: Not a fan of George Clooney — and “ER?”

A: I liked “ER,” but it’s hard for me to watch a medical show because I’m just hyper-critical of it. And when you live it all day long, you kind of want to come home and watch “Game of Thrones.” There are no dragons in my life currently, so I try to watch shows that add some other dimension to my life.

Q: You’ve got “Dr. Kildare,” “Ben Casey,” Konrad Styner in “Medic” during the 1950s, “Marcus Welby, M.D.” What do you think it is about Americans’ TV love affair with doctors? We seem to love to see them working and see their private lives.

A: It’s funny you mention Marcus Welby, because that’s what I had growing up, which is why I never believed I could be a doctor because I figured only men were doctors. But I think at the end of the day, there are three types of shows in television. There are cop shows, which are about law, there are justice-type shows, these shows about legal, but then there’s the drama of medicine, which is all about mortality, that edge of life and death. Watching that, I think, is intriguing. I think all of us question at times our mortality. How long will I live? What is the fascination of life and death? And the heroics of saving a life, I think that’s what’s so appealing.

Q: You talked about Albany Med memories. How about some memories of Union College?

A: Union was always, for me, a springboard for my career. I grew up in Highland, New York (near Poughkeepsie), a small town where a lot of kids didn’t go to college. None went to medical school. Even for me to go to college was huge. My father, his brother and my sister all went to Union College; we were a legacy family. I remember my dad bringing me up to Union one day and we stood there on the rugby field right by the Nott Memorial and my dad stood there and said to me, “All of this could be yours.” And coming from a little town, Union seemed enormous to me. Why it was enormous to me, is because it opened up a huge window in my life. While I was there, I was a biochemistry major with a minor in immunology. I spent some time doing honors research, which I’d never done. I went on a term abroad to Italy. I didn’t even have a passport. I’d never been out of the country. It expanded my horizon in a way it could have never been staying in Highland.

To me, the most important part of it, which I didn’t appreciate at the time, was the liberal arts education. I remember that I was a straight biochemistry major, it was science, science, science. But Union made it mandatory that you do work in a field outside of your major core of curriculum, and that is how I became a writer. How do you explain a heart surgeon who is a biochemistry major, hardcore research, and then writing a book that becomes a best-seller and a television show? That is the beauty of a liberal arts education.

Q: Where were some of your Schenectady hang-outs?

A: Geppetto’s. We used to go there for breakfast. It had the most heart-healthy breakfast on the planet. We’re talking about three eggs, bacon, hash browns.

Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at [email protected] or @jeffwilkin1 on Twitter. His blog is at www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/wilkin.

Categories: Entertainment, Life and Arts

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