Heartbeat: NBC series reviewed by a real-life heart surgeon
Tuesday at 9 p.m., NBC will wheel in Heartbeat, a medical drama starring Melissa George as gifted, rule-breaking heart surgeon Alex Panttiere. EW asked Joseph Turek, M.D., Ph.D., chief of pediatric cardiothoracic surgery at the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital — and Grey’s Anatomy enthusiast — to offer his expert opinion.
Disclaimer: I’m a heart surgeon, but I don’t play one on TV. So I was curious to see how realistically Heartbeat would portray the profession.
In her role as Dr. Panttiere — inspired by cardiothoracic surgeon Kathy Magliato’s life — Melissa George embodies the confidence and tough, blood-splattered exterior of someone who has navigated the good-ol’-boy ranks of heart surgery. The show offers stories rooted in real scientific bases, touching on deep hypothermic circulatory arrest, stem-cell therapy (in addition to other non-cardiac technologies under her purview as the hospital’s “Chief Innovations Officer”), and heterotopic heart transplantation, in which the donor heart is permanently sewn onto the recipient’s, resulting in two hearts beating as one. Granted, it’s an antiquated procedure for a patient with pulmonary hypertension and heart failure; modern treatment is a heart-lung transplant.
That’s not the only liberty taken. In the premiere’s opening scene, Alex treats a seat-stealing first-class passenger who is in distress, coughing and short of breath. She quickly diagnoses cardiac tamponade (a technical way of describing a buildup of excess fluid around the heart) and performs an in-flight pericardiocentesis using a chopstick, a straw, and the sharp edge of half an AmEx black card (to cut through his chest, naturally). The certainty of her diagnosis of this life-threatening condition, based solely on enlarged neck veins and a recent cough, was a stretch, and the cowboy procedure only further strained credibility. (Though it does illustrate her self-confidence — and resourcefulness. Although I might have tried the cylindrical base of a retractable pen and a torn soda can instead.)
Later, during a transplant, she thaws a frozen donor heart with a hair dryer. Is it absurd? Will it compromise sterility? Does Alex have great hair? Yes to all three. And although a cold heart is desired to preserve function, a cooler of ice isn’t going to turn it rock-solid. Was it accidentally placed in dry ice by an overeager junior surgical resident? (While I’m nitpicking: Privacy laws would not allow a doctor to reveal a heart donor’s identity to the recipient, unless mutually agreed upon by the donor’s family and the recipient well after the transplant. But maybe I’m just jealous that Alex finagles personal fire-truck escorts to the hospital.)
I appreciate the (hit-or-miss) attempts to delve into hospital politics, which lie at the intersection of corporate dollars and moral/ethical obligations to the patient. But let’s move on to matters of the figurative heart: The rigors of heart surgery can wreak havoc on a personal life, and Heartbeat presents colorful relationship dynamics built around Alex’s gay rock-star ex-husband, Max (Joshua Leonard), with whom she’s affectionately tag-team parenting their two boys; ex-mentor/bad-boy fling Jessie (Don Hany), who’s back as the hospital’s new chief of surgery; her almost-too-good, commitment-seeking surgeon boyfriend Pierce (Dave Annable); and chief of staff Millicent (Shelley Conn), who serves as her rival or friend or something in between. I was initially intrigued by the dimensions of the Alex-Jessie relationship, particularly as it had its origins back in a more vulnerable period of her life when she was a surgeon-in-training. However, I’m skeptical as to how it will keep from being cliché, considering that the romantically confounded mentor-mentee relationship has already been played out quite effectively in the early days of the Meredith-McDreamy saga on Grey’s Anatomy. In sum, Heartbeat is an at-times entertaining, flawed look at a technically challenging and emotionally charged world, one in which the stakes are assuredly higher than the limit on a black card. B–
(As told to Dan Snierson)