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Dr. Kathy Magliato — a heart surgeon, entrepreneur, writer, and mother — is such an overachiever, it’s almost hard to believe her accomplishments aren’t made up. Now, her life has been fictionalized in an NBC television series called “Heartbeat.” She talked with STAT about what it’s like to be turned into a TV character, and the hard work and determination that enabled her to leave her family’s upstate New York apple orchard so far behind.

The TV show just propelled your 2010 memoir “Heart Matters” onto the New York Times’s best-seller list. Is that just another ho-hum success for you, or do you get excited about things like that?

I’m out of my mind about it. I feel like I’m living the dream.

How closely does the TV show track your real life?

Some of the personal stuff is not true. I’m not in a love triangle. I don’t have a gay ex-husband. I’m definitely not getting as much action as Melissa George [the actress who plays Magliato’s character] is. What is mirrored in my life is each of the characters in total or in part is based on someone either in my past or present.


And what about your medical life? Are the patients on the show similar to ones you’ve had in your career? 

All of those cases are plausible cases. In the opening scene of the pilot, where she saves a life on an airplane, that actually happened on a flight from New York to LA. I didn’t cut the guy open on the plane, but the writers said, “If you could dial this up a notch, if we wanted to heighten the drama, what would be the craziest thing you would do on the airplane?”

How involved are you in the creation of the show?

We come up with the framework in [the] writer’s room. I edit the script, so that the voice of the main character has in it some element of my tone. When we shot the pilot, I worked with the lighting people, the director, the costume people, the makeup people, the set design. Every element of that show I have touched in some way. My involvement is deep and broad, but I also allow for everyone’s creativity.


What do you think about the way Melissa George plays your character? Is she authentically you?

As a doctor it took me a long time to be tough enough to be a surgeon, to be resilient and yet to be able to have compassion and respect and love. Those are very very important things to have with your patients. Melissa got that — no pun intended — in a heartbeat.

Your television character has an authority issue, always bumping up against rules and bosses. Do you share that problem? 

I think I was born with one fist clenched. That drives me. I wouldn’t want to let that go, and yet, boy, I had to learn how to tame that.

How is it that you’ve managed to accomplish so much?

I’m a big believer in the fear of failure holding you back. It’s not that I’m saying “failure is not an option” like that Tom Hanks movie. [But] if you work hard, you can’t fail.

Kathy Magliato is a cardiothoracic surgeon at Providence Saint John’s Medical Center in Santa Monica, Calif. This interview has been edited and condensed.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misattributed the quote “failure is not an option.” It has been updated.