Dr Gonzo Gonzales-Stawinski keeps Alex O’Loughlin’s previous character alive!

Dr Stawinski Gonzales

With the all-important, never diminishing need for organ donors, I thought it appropriate to revisit a special TV series that was cancelled way too soon.

I’m talking about Three Rivers and the doctor who was portrayed by actor Alex O’Loughlin (now starring in Hawaii Five-0).

The character O’Loughlin portrayed in the 2009-2010 series, Dr. Andy Yablonski, was actually inspired by real-life heart transplant surgeon Dr. Gonzo Gonzales-Stawinski.

In taking the opportunity to increase organ donation awareness, I recently had the privilege to speak with Gonzales-Stawinski, who worked behind the scenes of the series as a consultant.

The first thing I wanted to know was how the role inspired by his life came to be.

He told me, “About a year and a half before the show aired, a former co-resident of mine called me and asked if I’d mind speaking with a producer, actually a former college mate, to potentially develop a pilot script for a new series.

“I spoke with the producer, and then I spoke with a writer, who was Carol Barbee.

“I agreed to be interviewed and to be followed by her as she was doing her homework on character building.  At the time, she was interviewing several surgeons across the nation.  I believe she also spoke with a doctor at the University of Pittsburgh and a doctor someplace in California.

“The short of it is that she visited me for two days when I was at the Cleveland Clinic.  After she called and told me I’d be recognized as the person the lead character was developed after, I agreed to it as long as the show was not something where the doctor was followed around with a camera, as long as it was more aligned with a Grey’s Anatomy, Chicago Hope, ER type series, and that it be a transplant-related drama.

“I also spent two days with Alex O’Loughlin.  He came to observe some operations that I did.  I think he was doing his character homework to try to mimic a lot of the things that I did and the way I did them, also my personality.

“We didn’t have any procurement runs or heart transplants while he was in town, but we did have a special heart surgery, which was similar to what we do in heart transplantation.”

As a consultant to Three Rivers, Gonzales-Stawinski was involved with storyline developing.  He said, “I was making the storyline much more real, not as ‘Hollywood.’  I provided input on conditions and normal courses of action that doctors would take with patients.”

He added, “They also wanted me to do a cameo for one of the episodes.”

That episode was titled “Code Green,” and Gonzales-Stawinski played himself, a friend of Yablonski’s from the Cleveland Clinic.

I asked Gonzales-Stawinski which episode of the series stood out in his mind as one of the best stories for organ transplantation.  He said, “I think the one that I personally thought was very well written was the one in which they had someone with ALS, and there was an ethical dilemma.  The patient had a deadly neurological disease, and he wanted to serve as an organ donor to help save lives.  The whole drama surrounded what to do and what not to do.  It was about a conscious patient who knew he was not going to live long, and it was both interesting and dramatic.”

Gonzales-Stawinski also shared a very special episode with me that was near and dear to his heart, but was one that never made it to the airwaves before the series was cancelled.

He went on, “It was an episode that took place in the hospital in which the lead character brought his son to show him the operating room.”

Originally, O’Loughlin’s character was divorced, with a son.  But, when the series went to production, the character’s marital status was changed to “separated,” and any children were written out.

Gonzales-Stawinski continued, “The episode that never made it to production was based on a real-life experience of mine in which I brought my oldest boy, who at that time was eight, to the operating room.

“He used to ask me if he could go to work with me in the middle of the night.  He didn’t care about going during the day.  He was just fascinated by the fact that I worked during the middle of the night.”

He continued, “So, this particular evening, I got home at a reasonable time, and I said, ‘Come on, let’s go.’  It was 11:00.  So, I snuck him in the operating room and showed him the machines and all the gadgets that I used.  I guess the highlight was that I grabbed my loupe and showed it to him.  He wanted to try it on.  I agreed, and when he put it on, he looked at his hands, and he was totally amazed at the magnification of it.  He looked at me and said, ‘Boy, Dad, you’ve got a big head.’  I said, ‘You’re right.’  You couldn’t have scripted it any better.  It was a heartfelt, really pure moment, I think, but it was an episode that never made it.”

In the end, though it was not long running, the series did present a positive platform for organ donation.  And, it did raise awareness to that platform, particularly with O’Loughlin becoming an Ambassador for Donate Life America as a result of starring in the series.

Gonzales-Stawinski agreed that Three Rivers encouraged people to become organ donors, and organ donation in general did rise while the series was on the air.

He further said, “I’m flattered by the fact that somebody took the time to see what we do.  And, it’s not every day that your life is portrayed by a lead character in a TV series.

“Seriously,” he added, “I think it’s important to keep in mind that, once people pass away, their lives move on to a different level, but their bodies stay.  So, while the bodies stay, there’s no sense in not sharing some of the possibilities and opportunities that organ donation can give.

“I would encourage people to realize that only a small fraction of people get transplanted, because there are not enough organs to go around to donate.

“Another thing I would say has to do with the myths about transplantation and what really doctors do at the time of donation.

“The public needs to understand that we treat it as any other procedure that we do in live patients, with all the respect and dignity.  We try to do a very good job of trying to keep in mind the families of those that lose loved ones.

“I’d also like to add lastly that, I wish there were a better way of showing people the appreciation from everybody who has received an organ.  You have to meet an organ recipient and look that person straight in the face to realize what a magnificent feat medicine has been able to achieve.  If only we had a better mechanism of putting together donors and recipients.  I think that would be extremely useful.  And, I wish we had governmental policies in place to guarantee donors’ wishes are carried out.”

Gonzales-Stawinski is now Chief of Heart Transplantation at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas.

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 suite101.com, “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.