Letters of Inspiration Reply: Oct 26th, 2011

Although I can not reply to every correspondence, be assured, I read every one of them.  They are part of the sustenance that keeps me going.  Sometimes, though, I skip my lunch to respond to some letters.  I would like to share a reply in correspondence that summarizes my history and view about life:

Thanks so much, Aimee, for reaching out to me. I’ll tell you how I would answer your 3 questions and maybe that will give you some insight into the advice you are seeking:

1. I’m Kathy. I’m from the small town of Highland in Upstate NY that hardly anyone has every heard of – even though I went to college IN Upstate New York. I usually describe my town by what’s around it, not in it, like West Point, Vassar College or the Culinary Institute of America. But what’s IN my town is far more important. What’s in my town are hard working, kind, altruistic, salt-of-the-earth people. Why is this important? Well, first and foremost, your future begins where you began. It’s your taking off point – your spring board. Look to your origin, your roots to find who you really are and there you will find who you want to be. I am hard-working, kind, altruistic and a salt-of-the earth person. This led me to chose  heart surgery where you need to work hard, be kind and altruistic and be relatable to your patients – all the while you are being tough as shit.

2. My major in college was bioengineering with a minor in immunology but that’s unimportant – I could’ve majored in Home Ec and still been a heart surgeon. College is about finding your passion. What you’re doing right now as a “conflicted” freshman is EXACTLY what you should be doing – wondering about your future, dreaming about it, being frustrated by it and hopeful about it all at the same time. Hence the conflict. If you weren’t conflicted right now, I’d be worried about you. Open your mind to ALL the possibilities that college offers. Constantly be scanning your life for opportunity or that opportunity may just pass you by without you even knowing it. In college, I took the time to do creative things – a term abroad in Florence Italy, founding the first women’s rugby team (and breaking a few bones in the process), doing an honors research project that, unknowingly at the time, led me down the path of surgery. You do not have a crystal ball, Aimee, and you can’t possible know where your experiences in college will take you. The most important thing is to be at a learning institution that lets you enjoy the journey.

3. Simple question. simple answer. don’t over think it. you’ll drive yourself crazy. and BTW, it’s OK with not having a ready-made plan for your whole future – what fun would that be? The times in my life that were the most interesting were the times when someone pulled the rug out from underneath my future and I could be in free fall for awhile unsure when, if and how I would land.

Here’s how I would answer Question # 3;

I want to help people (not save people – big difference) and make a difference in the world that is much greater than myself. That’s it. that’s all I ever wanted to do with my life. Heart surgery was just a vehicle to get me there. It may be the vehicle for you. It may not. who cares? Just continue on your journey and your heart will lead you the right way. Of this, I am certain.

Oh, and one more thing. Like Steve Jobs said at the June 12, 2005 Stanford Commencement Address:If you live each day as if it were your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right. I have ALWAYS lead my life like this. Time is a precious gift. Use it wisely. Make the best of each day, every day. Then, no matter what happens in your future, you will never have any regrets, and in the process, you will lead a full life.

From my Heart……to yours.


Letter of Inspiration: Oct 25th, 2011

Date: Tue, Oct 25, 2011 at 10:59 PM
Subject: Pre-med student seeking guidance!
To: info@kathymagliato.com

Dr. Magliato,

Over the past two months, as I have been adjusting to college life as a dorky little freshman, I have been asked three questions at least 100 times now.
1) Where are you from?
2) What is your major?
3) What do you want to do with your life?
Answering the first question is easy. I am from Katy, Texas, which is only about a three hour drive away from the University of Texas at Austin, which is where I am currently studying. People only ever ask this question out of mere courtesy. Afterall, most kids going to UT are from either the Houston, Dallas, or Austin area. It’s only interesting when someone throws a wrench into the mix and says they are from some exotic, faraway land like Michigan or New York.
The second question is a little more difficult to answer. I mean, I have a major, but most people have never heard of it. I am majoring in something called Plan II Honors, which is just a strange name for an interdisciplinary honors major that serves the main purpose of shipping kids off to graduate school, law school, or medical school. Besides Plan II, I do plan (no pun intended) on declaring another major in the natural sciences college.
Now, the third question is where I start to fumble. What do I want to do with the rest of my life? I am only eighteen! How am I supposed to know what I am supposed to do with the REST of my life? Generally, I tell people that I plan to go to medical school and end the conversation. Hopefully, it will not take me the rest of my life to complete med school, but I honestly have no plan after that. The only thing I know is that I want to save people and that is simply not something I want to blurt out to new acquaintances.
As a means of clearing up some of my confusion about the blurry mess that is my future, I read Heart Matters. Since reading your book a few months ago, I cannot stop thinking about heart surgery! By that, I don’t mean that I dream of opening patients’ chest cavities. I mean that something about heart surgery has struck a chord with me. The innovation, the intensity, and the adrenaline of surgery. It all appeals to me! And then the romantic idea of fixing a broken heart has also passed through the “sentimental” portion of my brain.
Ultimately, I just wanted to let you know that you have had an immense impact on me- a conflicted college student- and I wanted to thank you for giving me something to ponder and dream about.
If you have any advice for an undergraduate student hoping to get into medical school and possibly even enter the realm of heart surgery, please do let me know!

Thank you,
A. F.

Upcoming: Women’s Leadership Speaking Series: Nov 2nd, 2011

Join Jennifer Siebel Newsom and Dr. Magliato as they discuss their role in defining women’s roles  in today’s world, in the first Women’s Leadership Speaking Series sponsored by the Women’s Foundation of California.

Event is free and open to the public
(you must RSVP to ensure space)

In Conversation: Jennifer Siebel Newsom and Dr. Kathy Magliato
Wednesday, November 2, 2011, 6 to 9 PM
Skirball Cultural Center
2701 North Sepulveda Boulevard, Los Angeles
(complimentary parking at the Skirball)
RSVP to Emma Mayerson at emmam@womensfoundca.org

Heart Matters Excerpt: Healing Robot

The following is an excerpt from my book, Heart Matters.  This story is particularly close to me, as it involves my son, Nicholas:It’s hard to explain to your children why Mommy is frantically searching for her socks in the middle of a calm crisp Sunday afternoon.  Why she is running to her car with her sneakers in her hand.  Why she is speeding off with the flashers on.

When I returned home later that day, having saved a life, I was greeted by a note on my front door from a neighbor who was “commenting” on the speed of my departure from the house.  To say the note was nasty would be an understatement.  I sat down at the kitchen table, noting the blood that had soaked through my canvas sneakers and onto my white ankle socks and mentally wrote an apology note to my neighbor explaining  that I “just had to get to Blockbuster and pick up the latest release of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off before the store closed.

My socks, my sneakers, and my rate of speed are immaterial to me as long as no one gets hurt.  The “no one” that I am most worried about hurting, however, is my children.  It is hard for them to understand the demands of our jobs, especially when we are called away suddenly.  And so my husband and I, out of pure love for our children, have a special way of handling the head-on collision between our work lives and our home lives.  We incorporate the kids, on some small level into our working world rather than isolate them from it.  There are some parents who keep their work lives entirely separate from their home lives.  When they are at work–they work.  When they are home–there is no mention of work.  And the two shall never meet.  For us, this is impossible, and we have found that making the children feel like they are a part of what we do each day gives them the sense of belonging to part of a greater good.  They get a sense of responsibility and a sense of control over the situation.  They take ownership of what is happening rather than being victims of it.

For an example, when my husband gets called in to do a liver transplant in the middle of the night, it invariably wakes up our five-year-old, Nicholas.  (I could do an open heart surgery case in the middle of Gabriel’s room and he wouldn’t so much as roll over in his sleep.)  My husband, Nick, will take the time to explain to Nicholas what he is doing.

“Where are going, Daddy?”

“Well, Tiger, there is sick patient who needs a liver transplant tonight.  Right away.  I have to get on a helicopter and go and get the liver.”  I believe Nicholas thinks that donor livers come from stores and we have to fly to the store to get them because we haven’t yet told him that they come from dead people–a bit too much for a five-year-old.

“What color is the helicopter?”  Nicholas always wants to know details about what’s going on and I think this helps him to picture it better in his mind.

“Blue and silver.”

“Will you wear a seat belt?”
“Of course.”

“Do they have snacks?”


“Tell me about the patient, Daddy.”  Nick will talk about the patient in terms of what he does, where he lives, and what his family is like so Nicholas can get a sense of the person and not the disease.

“What’s the patient’s name?”  Nicholas always asks this,


“Let’s say a prayer for Jonas, Daddy.”

Nick and Nicholas will say a prayer for the patient so he has a “good operation” and “feels better.”  So now, Nicholas knows where Daddy is going and why.  He also feels like a part of the process because he believes, in a most sincere way, that his prayers will help this patient as much as Daddy’s surgical skills.  Nick will also follow up with Nicholas to let him know how the patient is doing each day and Nicholas is delighted about being included in Daddy’s daily reports.

On weekends, especially on days like Mother’s Day, when I seem to always be on call and have to make rounds (how I wish they’d invent a new holiday called Working Mother’s Day specifically for moms who work so we could have the day off),  I often bring the boys to the hospital with me .  This delights the nurses, who then ply them with apple juice, graham crackers, and Jell-O until they “spin” from the sugar high that they never get at home.

“Don’t go to work today Mommy, please don’t go.”  The words pierce my chest like a well-tossed javelin.

“Do you want to go with me?”  I say to my sons.

“Sure.”  Both of their little faces light up.

We hold hands as we glide from room to room checking in on patients who are in various stages of recovery from heart surgery.  I was examining the surgical incision of one particular patient when Gabriel asked, “What’s that?” pointing to the man’s chest.  “It’s his incision, honey.” I replied.

“it’s a crack-a-cision?” Gabriel asked.

I thought about it for a moment.  Well, of course, to a three-year-old, an incision would look like a crack in the body.  It was his interpretation of what he was seeing and I just wen with it.

“Yes, it’s his crack-a-cision.”

“How come he has a crack-a-cision?”

“So he can feel better.”

You could see the gears turning in his head.  He was trying to figure out how a pretty nasty-looking “crack” like that could actually make a person feel better.  It looks more like a very painful, yet well-placed, lethal injury.  And, yes, I admit that it is a bit strange that we, as heart surgeons, can violate the human body in such a grotesque way and actually improve a patient’s outcome.  We heal by penetrating the chest and manipulating the core of our human physiology.  How crazy is that?

When we get to intensive care, Gabriel, a little shy, just wants to “see the bones,” and so I plop him down in front the X-ray viewing machine to look at the morning’s chest X-rays to his heart’s content.  Nicholas, more adventurous, wants to “see the patients with the zipper” (referring to my sternotomy incisions).  It amazes me how this little boy will walk right up to a patient lying in an ICU bed, with nine different tubes and hoses going into and out of his body, on a ventilator, completely unconscious, and touch his hand and whisper (so he “doesn’t wake him”),  “Hope you feel better.”  He’ll then smile at me proudly as if he has just cured the patient of cancer.  He feels good.  He feels proud.  He feels like he has played a part in the patient’s healing.  He is not filled with fear.  He is filled with hope, as in “Hope you feel better” –his own words.  His own contribution.

I suppose that is how it came to pass that he started drawing “healing robots” for my patients.  Nicholas loves art.  Colored pens and paper are his constant companions and he is always sketching something.  One morning he asked me, “Mommy, who is your sickest patient?”

“Richard,”  I replied.  “He has water on his lungs and is very, very sick.”

Nicholas made a drawing of a robot and explained to me that this was a “healing robot” and “if you put it in Richard’s room, it will make him get better.”  And so I did.   I taped it to the blank wall in Richard’s room that he stared at every day, all day, and guess what?  He got better.

Sometimes I feel like a healing robot–a two dimensional piece of paper  taped to a wall, not doing anything medically or surgically for patients but somehow, indirectly, helping them to get better.  To heal them just by being there in their room.

“Who is your sickest patient today, Mommy?”

“Oh, Nicholas, today I have a very sick patient.  Her name is Kimberly and she is a mommy.  She has a son just like you, except older.  He sleeps in his mommy’s room at the hospital every night because he loves her so much.”

Kimberly was an amazing woman who cared deeply about everyone around her and thought little of her own well-being.   Riddled with metastatic cancer, she would greet me each morning by asking me how I was feeling.  I had a lousy cold.  She had metastatic cancer.  Fluid had accumulated around her heart, known as a pericardial effusion, which had been surgically drained.  Every day I would check the drainage tube that had been left in place to see how much it had drained overnight.  The tube needed to be removed in order for her to go home–to go home to die.  This damn tube held her hostage at the hospital because it kept draining liters of fluid.

Two days before she died, I went to see her and she did not look good at all.  She was ashen, slumped in her chair and her dark, dank hair hung limp around her face.  Her breathing was labored and shallow.

“How do you feel today?” she asked me as always, except that her words were more feeble and breathless.

“I feel like we should move to intensive care today, that’s how I feel,” I replied, which made her chuckle.

“That’s a heck of an answer.  Is your cold really that bad that you need to be in intensive care?”

I just smiled at her wryness.  She used to be a comedian and I suppose that humor was the last vestige of her life that she had left.  She had carried the torch for two clocks of its cross-country journey in the 1984 Olympics and this was last leg of her race.

The day she moved to the ICU was the day she officially became my sickest patient on rounds.  It was also the day that Nicholas drew her a healing robot.  Actually, it wasn’t a healing robot per se; it was a healing rainbow.  Nicholas drew a beautiful picture of the sun and a rainbow.  When I asked Nicholas why he drew Kimberly a rainbow instead of a robot, he replied, “Because Kimberly needs to go over the rainbow to get better.”  Now, mind you, Nicholas knew nothing of this woman’s grave illness and the fact that she was about to die.  I found that rainbow deeply prophetic.

The following morning, rainbow in one hand, Scotch tape in the other, I went to Kimberly’s room in the intensive care unit.  Her son was asleep on a cot next to her bed.  He was wearing headphones and was breathing the soft, comfortable, evenly paced breath of someone fast asleep.  Kimberly was in a rumpled hospital bed with the side rails pulled up.  Her face was partially obscured by an oxygen mask.  Unlike her son’s breathing, her breath was agonal and came in spurts.  Ling, slow breaths followed by pregnant pauses.  Although it was a beautiful Southern California morning, none of the day’s sunlight seemed to pas through the window of Kimberly’s room, although I can’t quite explain why.  In one corner of the room lay her and her son’s personal items stuffed into four plastic hospital bags.  They had simply been stacked in the corner and hadn’t been put away, as if the move from her other room on the regular ward was a hurried one.  Perhaps it was.

Kimberly opened one eye and, with a weary look, took notice of my taping up the picture.  I told her that my son had drawn her a healing rainbow.  She didn’t hear me or at least didn’t acknowledge she had.  It didn’t matter.  I taped it high enough on the wall across from her bed so it would be at eye level if she opened her eyes.  She never did.  As I turned to leave the room, having done nothing medically or surgically to help Kimberly, her son awoke.  Half asleep, he poured himself into a chair nest to the side of his mom’s bed.  His movements were slow and well rehearsed as if this is what he did upon waking every morning.  He looked at his mom awash in sickness and tried to get closer to her by leaning over the bed rail and placing his arm around her head to cradle her in its crook.   He didn’t notice me standing there, the two-dimensional healing robot, doing nothing–until I spoke.

“Do you want to get in bed with your mom?” I asked.

“Is that possible?” he said, a bit bewildered.

“Everything is possible.”

I called the nurse in, an exceptionally kind nurse indeed, and together she and I gently moved Kimberly to the far side of the hospital bed to make room next to her for her only son.  He was a strapping young man in his twenties, yet gently, so very gently, he climbed into bed next to her.

I raised the side rail on his side of the bed, pulled the covers over the two of them, and turned out the lights.   He cuddled her with both arms wrapped around her body and her head rested against his chest just the way I cuddle my sons when they sneak into my bed in the wee hours of the night.

Within three minutes of settling in next to her son, Kimberly took her last breath and died in his arms.  It was as if she had waited for him to get into bed nest to her before she left the earth.  Although I was just a healing robot and did nothing to help this woman medically, at least I gave her that–a beautiful release from her illness, a beautiful exit from this world.  When it’s my time to go, that’s how I want to die.  In the arms of my son.

“How did Kimberly like my picture?”  Nicholas asked when I got home that evening.

“She liked it very much,” I replied.  “And you know what she did?  She went over your rainbow and is feeling much better now.”

And so I say to you, working parents, involve your children in your work.  Do it in a safe and nurturing way that makes them comfortable in your working world.  And maybe, just maybe, they won’t feel so far away from you when you’re at work being a healing