Dr. Kathy Magliato uses the word ice in a way I've never heard before: to describe her mind-set when she steps into the operating room to perform cardiac surgery. What she means is that she's utterly composed, confident, and impervious. Dr. Magliato has developed this poise through her years of training to join a field that is extremely male dominated. According to recent findings, fewer than 5 percent of cardiothoracic surgeons are women, despite the fact that nearly half of all medical-school graduates are female.
Lenny spoke to Dr. Magliato, who is also the author of the memoir Heart Matters and the inspiration for NBC's new medical drama Heartbeat, about how working in a nursing home as a teenager inspired her to become a doctor, why she chose cardiac surgery as a specialty, and what it was like the first time she ever led a team of doctors and nurses in the OR.
Jessica Grose: Were you always interested in medicine as a career path? Was it something your family encouraged?
Kathy Magliato: I grew up on an apple farm in the Hudson Valley area in New York. We've never had a doctor in our family, and so it wasn't that I became a doctor because I was inspired by what I saw growing up. It was almost the opposite. I was inspired to be a doctor because I loved science so much.
I have three younger brothers. I have an older sister, but she was four years older than I am. My brothers and I are all about a year and a half apart, so we were really tight. I grew up learning how to play well in a sandbox filled with men. I really am grateful to my brothers for teaching me not just how to play with men, but how to work and speak with men.
My dad insisted that we have jobs, so as soon as we could get working permits I got a job as a janitor in a nursing home in my hometown. That was really the first time I'd ever seen anything close to health care or medical care. It's an amazing thing to go from somebody who's cleaning toilets to [being] inspired to be a doctor, but you just never know where inspiration comes from.
The nurses knew that I was interested in science, and so whenever a doctor came to see one of the residents in the first floor, who were the sickest residents, I would make sure I was in the room cleaning the bathroom or sweeping or mopping the floor so I could see what the doctors did.
I was just fascinated with the fact that these doctors — who, by the way, were all men — would come in and help a perfect stranger to feel better. I thought, What a great job! I want a job where I can help a perfect stranger and make someone feel better. It's just I didn't have any female role models.
JG: What led you into cardiac surgery as a specialty? I know how much additional training surgery requires, and cardiac surgery is especially male-dominated.
KM: The inspiration to be a cardiac surgeon honestly was: the more people told me I couldn't do it, the more I wanted to do it. And going through my training, I was pretty much talked out of doing any of the male-dominated professions like cardiac. Everybody said, "Oh, you're a cute little blonde girl, you should do pediatric surgery or plastic surgery." One guy told me that I looked like a Barbie doll, so I should go into plastics.