By Stacey Gualandi/January 27, 2012
By day, Dr. Kathy Magliato is one of very few female cardiothoracic surgeons in the world. By night, she is a wife and mother of two young boys. “Having it all” is her middle name. She is now Director of Women’s Cardiac Services at Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA, and in her spare time, develops artificial heart devices.
“I wrote ‘Heart Matters’ to educate women about heart disease because it’s our #1 killer.” Dr. Kathy Magliato
But the demands of her profession haven’t affected her quick wit, and hilarious bedside manner, which I experienced first-hand at a recent Women’s Foundation of CA event in Los Angeles. She was candid, passionate about her craft, and a real cut-up. No pun intended.
Dr. Magliato works tirelessly to raise awareness of the #1 killer of women: heart disease. She literally wrote the book on this preventable disease, “Heart Matters.”
To better understand how she rose through the often challenging ranks of heart surgery, and to find out just what makes her tick, I spoke with Dr. Magliato on The Women’s Eye Radio Show…
EYE: I heard you speak at the Women’s Conference…you were a dynamic speaker. You were very funny, entertaining — not something you normally see with a heart surgeon I don’t think.
DR. MAGLIATO: And you don’t see women either. I still get patients saying, “Are you the nurse?”
EYE: People still have that reaction?
DR. M: Yes still… but I take it as a compliment. I look and I act like a girl, but I’m as tough as I need to be in the operating room. I hopefully have that compassion that patients really relate to. I’m open and the type of doctor who sits on the bed and talks to you, not a “doorknob doctor”…someone who has one hand on the doorknob and one foot out the door. I’m engaging, accessible and it’s helped me to be a good doctor. When people meet me, they definitely do a double take.
“The more people told me not to be a heart surgeon, the more I wanted it. Being pushed away kind of pushed me toward it.”
EYE: What was it about you that you wanted to pursue this line of work? Did you have role models in this profession?
DR. M: The more people told me not to be a heart surgeon, the more I wanted it. Being pushed away kind of pushed me toward it. There was a very specific moment in my life that I knew this is what I wanted to do.
EYE: You wrote about that particular instant in your memoir “Heart Matters”…
DR. M: Yes, it was the moment that I touched a human heart for the first time. I had just completed nine years of training after medical school and it was the beginning of my journey. One of my first days, a nurse grabs me and throws me into the operating room. There was chaos all around. And there I see a patient with his chest open.
I joined the surgeon, and he asked me to hold the patient’s heart. That was an incredible moment. Here this heart was just beating in my huge hand — my hand spans 13 keys on a piano and I can palm a basketball — but I held this heart so perfectly so the surgeon could just whip stitch it and he saved the patients life. I felt terrified, inspired and awed all at the same time.
EYE: But you had the determination…
DR. M: It pulled me through the rest of my training. I had to do another five years of training, then three years as a heart surgeon because I specialized in heart transplantation and artificial heart technology. I had to do extra training.
EYE: You are a part of a big “men’s club,” and I bet you met with a lot of resistance…that they didn’t want you in the club?
DR. M: I did feel that along the way. But it didn’t discourage me. It just made me stronger. I had to be twice as good to get half the credit. It was tough competing and to be good enough to stay.
But in life when people are pushing you, there are two ways to handle that: you can get a chip on your shoulder or you can embrace it and let that make you be a better person. I chose the latter. And I’ve made it through.
EYE: I think it takes a certain kind of woman to do what you do…
DR. M: I think maintaining an air of politeness and an air of team spirit and teamwork is critically important, especially during those critical times when something untoward happens in the operating room. It is very important how you handle yourself under pressure and I kind of thrive on it.
“I can’t stress more that we are only given so much time on this earth, so we have to do the most that we can do with that time and that’s what drives me.”
EYE: Do you think you’re opening doors for women?
DR. M: I hope so. I must admit I never thought my book would have been such an inspiration to young women. I hope I am paving the way. But I have left many potholes though…
EYE: What potholes?
DR. M: There were definitely some sexual harassment issues. I hope I made it easier for the next group of women. We’re living in a different time now, but when I was going through my training in the late 90s, you dealt with it in your own way — you didn’t talk about it; you kept your head low and moved on and tried not to let it defeat you.
“Heart disease is 80% preventable and knowing and understanding how to deal with the risk factors and modifying them is key.”
EYE: Is that why you wrote your book?
DR. M: No, actually I wrote Heart Matters to educate women about heart disease because it’s our #1 killer. Heart disease kills more women than all cancer combined. Most women would say breast cancer is the number one health concern. But heart disease kills almost 10 times more women than breast cancer does.
EYE: Can we control or prevent heart disease?
DR. M: Yes!! Heart disease is 80% preventable and knowing and understanding how to deal with the risk factors and modifying them is key.
It’s not like cancer. But sometimes I want to call it heart cancer instead of heart disease so women would pay attention to it more.
So in my book, I’ve included stories from women I’ve taken care of during my years of training and practice. I tell their stories so that women will learn about heart disease that is actually readable and entertaining.
At the core in my book, you can learn about heart disease, and surrounding that, stories from other women, and around that, is my story. So women can see what it’s like to be a chick heart surgeon married to my husband, a lung transplant surgeon and Director of Hepatobiliary Surgery at Cedars Sinai Medical Center and juggling two boys. (Below is a video where Dr. Magliato talks about her dad and heart surgery.)
EYE: Heart vs. Liver. Discuss?
DR. M: My husband and I have this discussion all the time: What is the more important organ, the heart or the lung? And I say to him if you can buy it in the store and eat it how important can it really be? Ha.
EYE: Is it hard to be married and have such intense medical careers?
DR. M: I couldn’t imagine myself being married to any other man. It’s wonderful. I couldn’t do it any other way. I have a husband who gets me, who understands my lifestyle…who knows that when I call and say I don’t know when I’ll be home, he appreciates it. It goes both ways.
I think having that support and vice versa it has made our marriage and partnership so solid. It might not work if I were married to an investment banker!! Haha!!
“I think it’s important that no patient dies alone. If the family can’t be there then I’m there.”
EYE: When it comes to how you connect with your patients, you wrote that “something in me has to die in order for me to let go of a patient.” Is that how you have to deal with life and death?
DR. M: I truly believe that patients have the right to live and they have the right to die. As doctors, we are not allowed to make the judgment who lives and who dies. We simply must do what is asked of us by the family. The most important thing to do is be supportive. For me, instead of distancing myself from a patient who is dying, I’m the opposite.
I’m there for them as long as the family is comfortable with that. I think it’s important that no patient dies alone. If the family can’t be there then I’m there. Death can be a beautiful thing. There is tremendous guilt and sadness, but it can be a beautiful release from this world. It’s a part of life I’m afraid.
DR. M: I get asked all the time, what motivates me? I say my family, my husband, helping people; but really the simplest answer is time — that’s what motivates me. I can’t stress more that we are only given so much time on this earth, so we have to do the most that we can do with that time and that’s what drives me.
I live my life everyday being thankful that I woke up and my feet touched the ground. It’s about living moment to moment. It applies to everyone — you don’t have to be a heart surgeon to use your time wisely.
EYE: How do you deal with the stress? We are the same age, and there is no way that I could do or handle what you do…
DR. M: I want women to have it all. Why not? Who told us we couldn’t have it all. I grew up on an apple farm in upstate New York. My folks told me that if I worked hard, I could achieve anything. And so that for me sent a message that I could have it all if I work hard. I must be pre-built to handle stress. But having a family at home — no matter the stressful day I’ve had — coming home and having those two little guys run to me; all of a sudden any stress I’ve had is gone.
“When it comes to heart disease and risk factors, what I want you to know is your numbers.”
EYE: You write how important it is to “know your numbers?” What does that mean?
DR. M: When it comes to heart disease and risk factors, what I want you to know is your numbers. That includes your blood pressure. You can buy a blood pressure cuff or get it checked by your doctor or at the pharmacy. I want you to know your cholesterol numbers. Your good cholesterol is HDL, and your bad cholesterol is your LDL.
I want you to know them and own those numbers because so many people walk around not knowing and are often oblivious to these numbers. I encourage you to get them checked, talk with your doctor and get them into the normal range. Also, if you are diabetic, know your Hemoglobin A1C number. That is a number that we check on a monthly basis to see how good your blood sugars are.
EYE: Do you know your numbers?
DR. M: Yes, mine are good!!!
EYE: That’s because you have a good heart — in more ways than one!! Let’s all remember that February 3 is National Wear Red Day to kick off American Heart Month. We’ll be wearing red here at The Women’s Eye. Thank you so much Dr. Magliato.