Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Hot Lights, Cold Steel: Life, Death and Sleepless Nights in a Surgeon's First Years - Michael J. Collins, M.D.

I must admit that the medical world absolutely fascinates me.  If I could get over my queasiness with blood, guts and other people's bodily fluids overall, I don't think that a career in the field would be completely out of the question.  It's amazing what modern miracles doctors perform on a daily basis - and you have to admit that the pay isn't half bad either.  All of these "perks" come at a price, however, and in Michael J. Collins' memoir  Hot Lights, Cold Steel: Life, Death and Sleepless Nights in a Surgeon's First Years he tells the reader all about the hardships that doctors must go through before they strike it big.  Collins organizes his book into four sections - each section chronicling a year of residency. Within each section, he goes through each year month by month, describing the events that occurred both professionally and personally.  Besides sharing his successes and failures inside the doors of the world-renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., Collins also records the hardships that his family had to go through. His wife, Patti, continuously pregnant and raising the growing Collins brood as essentially a single mother.  Collins also describes the seemingly endless hours that he had to work in order to just make ends meet and have the bills paid for his family.  In addition to his residency and "on call" duties at the Mayo Clinic, he also had to "moonlight" at a local hospital in order to provide for his family.  On a professional level, Collins also talks about his experiences in the Mayo Clinic and how they changed his perception of the profession.  There is an especially striking section towards the end of his residency, for example, where Collins feels as though he has become bored with some of the more mundane, every day procedures of orthopedic surgery - like setting fractures - and he reflects on how he ceased to treat patients as actual people, and began to focus simply on accomplishing the task at hand, fixing what was wrong with them, as quickly as possible to go on to other, presumably more pressing cases. The words of wisdom of an x-ray technician bring him back to reality and remind him of the reasoning for his pursuit of this profession in the first place.

One of the stories that really touched me, and that you can tell touched Collins as well, is the story of a young woman, Sarah, who he treats during his oncology rotation.  Sarah was diagnosed with osteogenic sarcoma in her left leg, and is therefore referred to Mayo for a hemipelvectomy, a procedure where her leg and half of her pelvis are removed.  The goal of this procedure is ultimately to eradicate the cancer, but as with all malignancies, there is never a guarantee.  This is a case that sticks with Collins' throughout his residency, and will throughout his career, I'm sure.  What makes this young woman so memorable is her spirit throughout her experience.  Even as she is laying in the hospital recovering from this major surgery, she is so upbeat and hopeful, according to Collins.  The positive energy just seems to radiate from within in, and it simply amazes me that after all of the hardship that she goes through, she can still be so happy.  I don't believe that there are many people, myself included, who could be in such good spirits after such a diagnosis - and especially procedure - such as Sarah's.  Indeed, reading about some of the patients that Collins treats in his four year residency, and the hardships that these people encounter and take head-on with such a positive outlook truly makes one feel fortunate for all that they have - good health above all.

Overall, Hot Lights, Cold Steel: Life, Death and Sleepless Nights in a Surgeon's First Years is an interesting read that makes you think about what doctors must go through in order to achieve the prestige that is so often assigned to their profession.  They must go through many hurdles, especially in the early years, and the memoir reminds the reader that, like anyone else, young doctors don't necessarily have it easy to start off either.

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