The CBS Series That Changed a Generation

3634047_com_show1Three Rivers lasted less than a year as a series. It’s effects have continued to last a lifetime.

If warning labels existed for television shows, the label for Three Rivers would read, “Warning: Life Changing Series.”

And that’s what Three Rivers has remained, nearly three years after its exit from the airwaves.

How It All Began

I recently had the honor and privilege of speaking with someone I admire greatly, Creator/Executive Producer of the series (and fellow native North Carolinian) Carol Barbee. And I was fascinated by our conversation.

“At the time I pitched Three Rivers,” Barbee began our interview, “I had been under contract for CBS. And they asked the writers for ideas for a medical show. So, for inspiration, I watched a documentary about a hospital. And one story in that documentary was about a transplant. I just found each side of the equation so fascinating, so interesting. I then went online to find the biggest transplant hospitals in the world. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) was number one. And Pittsburgh has three rivers, so I wanted to tell all three stories (doctor, donor, recipient). It was like a perfect fit. So, I pitched it to CBS.”

She continued, “Once they bought it, I went online to do more research and found the Cleveland Clinic and Dr. Gonzalo Gonzalez-Stawinski (Gonzo). He invited me to hang out with him and his team. So, I went for two weeks and spent some time with him during the day, during the night, and in surgery. And, I really got to know him and see his lifestyle. I then came back to L.A. and wrote the pilot absolutely with them in mind.”

Art and Life Intertwined

Three Rivers execs wanted to be as true to real life as possible. Barbee told me, “We wanted to show the long haul of organ transplantation, the ups and downs, the hurry and wait, just like real life. A transplant is scheduled, then the donor gets a fever and is no longer eligible. Life literally hangs in the balance.”

In finding the best way to show that balance in the vein of real life, Barbee sought the help of Tenaya Wallace of Donate Life Hollywood, who she met indirectly through former Transplant Coordinator Steve Boman. “Tenaya was very generous with her time, and we really needed her. She was incredibly helpful and worked with us to show that we were medically correct in our portrayals.”

That medical correctness involved accuracy in storytelling. “Tenaya introduced me to a Procurement Coordinator in L.A., and I would sometimes go with the procurement team on the spur of the moment. I got some ideas for the episodes and learned a lot from those runs and talking with my team in L.A. and with the transplant team in Cleveland. Also, we had people come and sit down with our writers, and we got ideas from them. One was a transplant surgeon from Stanford. Some of the doctors and nurses from UPMC also came.”

New Life Depicted

“Every single episode (of the series) touched me. Several of them just killed me,” Barbee reflected. “One of them was about a man who had Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He wanted to die and give his organs. It was just wrenching. You asked yourself, who deserved to live and who deserved to die?”

The story that remained Barbee’s favorite, though, was the original pilot filmed in Pittsburgh (which was later moved to around episode nine). “It’s the heart story you’ve heard over and over again. The patient is given a heart and, at the end of the episode, the mother of the donor wants to meet the person who has her daughter’s heart so that she can hear it beat one more time. It’s amazing, and it touches me every time.”

Episodic Secrets Revealed

Episodic stories would be lost, though, without the right actors in the roles.

That actor for Three Rivers was Alex O’Loughlin (Hawaii Five-0), who played Transplant Surgeon Andy Yablonski. Barbee revealed, “When we were casting the lead in the series, there were a number of actors under contract with CBS. I met with several of them, but when I met with Alex, I said, ‘yeah, this is it.’”

O’Loughlin did worry about playing a doctor. Barbee told me, “He was concerned that he couldn’t pull it off. So, I suggested he talk to Gonzo (who was like my best friend at that point), then come back and talk to me. He became so tight with Gonzo. They went surfing together and hung out in Cleveland many times. Alex totally got on board, because he had someone to picture and pattern his behavior after. He saw the real person. And, Alex was fantastic.”

Effects of the Series Lingered

In fact, Barbee revealed, “Alex became so moved by the whole thing that he wanted to be an Ambassador for Donate Life. He really took it to heart. I loved his commitment. He’s a total treasure.”

Unfortunately, the show was to be short-lived.

Yet, its effects have continued to touch Barbee every day. On the day the series was cancelled, a Procurement Coordinator forwarded an email to her. “This Coordinator had gotten an email from a recipient’s mother, and it was addressed to me. It said, ‘Ms. Barbee, I just want to thank you. My daughter got a heart last night, because her donor watched your show last week.’ I take that with me every day.”

National Campaign Begun

“That was the power and essence of what we tried to say in Three Rivers. If anything good could come from the death of a loved one, it would have to be that they would be able to become a donor. Some part of them would then live on in some way. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”

Donate Life began a campaign this year to keep giving that gift. Wallace revealed to me in an earlier interview at suite101 that O’Loughlin urged her many times to do something on a national, far-reaching level.

“20 Million in 2012” certainly fit the bill.

Series Results Life Changing

O’Loughlin was not the only Three Rivers alum who continued to get involved with Donate Life Hollywood. Barbee was asked by Wallace to be an Advisor with the organization.

“I’m so proud of Three Rivers,” Barbee told me. “It actually did good in the real world. It wasn’t just a show. It caused people to do something important in the world, and I’m very, very proud of that.”

“Going forward, I hope that every show I do has the opportunity to make that kind of positive change in the world.”

In that earlier interview with Wallace, she also told me there was a 6% increase in organ donation registration during the time Three Rivers aired.

Life changing? You bet!

Cheryl has been a freelance TV/film writer for more than 10 years. Simultaneously, she has worked in PR for Bon Jovi Productions in NYC, PolyGram Records (also in NYC), and Rogers & Cowan Public Relations. Cheryl has published articles at, “Sci-Fi Entertainment” magazine, and “Soap Opera Weekly.” She was also a credited researcher for English author Denis Meikle’s JOHNNY DEPP: A KIND OF ILLUSION. Cheryl enjoys writing for the entertainment industry and meeting new people. She is also an animal lover. 

Article originally posted at Suite101.