Hot Lights, Cold Steel is a novel written by Dr. Michael Collins who is an orthopedic surgeon living in Chicago with his lovely wife Patti and twelve children. In his book, he talks about his four years of residency at the Mayo Clinic. I know it’s coming up on the middle of the semester now so I will keep this post short and sweet.
I like that there are short chapters because I usually finish a chapter before I set a novel down. It has many stopping points which are great for pre-meds so we can do a little at a time, especially if we’re reading during the semester.
There are points in the book where Dr. Collins writes absolute poetry and I wonder how he could possibly articulate a feeling or a thought about a patient’s case and make it so relatable.
The first day and the first shift and even the first month starting out in a hospital can be a terrifying experience. Dr. Collins does a great job of tapping into the psyche, the thought process of how a resident feels just starting out which can be applied to almost all medical staff. You feel helpless at times, stupid all the time, and you feel as though the higher ups will obviously fire you because you don’t know how to do a task a monkey could perform.
He does a great job of coming up with little phrases to say to patients. There are times, especially when you first start out in a hospital, where you have no idea what to say. You think to yourself, “Oh my gosh, I might completely offend this person, they may get the wrong idea about what I'm saying, should I say it a different way?” Pay attention to his dialogue with patients, it may help you out one day if you're in a hurry with one hour sleep. "Mr. Spahn, is there something I can help you with?" he says to one of his patients: caring, general (can serve many people), professional, and inviting.
I like the cynical jokes he and the medical staff make. You have to laugh it off. It’s not that we don’t care about our patients but we have to learn to let loose in a setting like that. One of the ways to deal with it is to crack a few jokes. As a helpful metaphor it’s like when a kid gets a scrape and the parents make a funny little comment before they coddle their child doesn’t mean they care any less for their child, they care the world of him or her, but comedy lessens the blow.
I was reading about his first total hip replacement which was the first time that we, the readers, were hearing about him doing all the components of a surgery. It was amazing, the thrill rushed over me for the two pages he was talking about it. It felt like I was pre-living my moment in medicine where I would finally showcase all the years of hard work.
He can be a little corny sometimes when he’s summarizing the end of a long shift or the end of a month/year. But, in doing so he does say things that need to be said because they can be easily overlooked. He talks more about how he is feeling about a patient interaction or a conversation he’s having with his wife and kids. It’s eye opening to see a modern perspective of a surgeon’s emotional side. I always assumed the emotions were left to the TV dramas like Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice.
Page 82: “We weren’t gods, we were just a bunch of guys trying to do the best we could for injured people.”
Page 86: “I was on call a lot, and even when I was home I didn’t have much gas left in the tank.”
Page 197: “I was still too ignorant about what a scalpel could, and could not, do.
Page 217: “What more could I give? Day in and day out I did the best I could, the best anyone could—and so often it wasn’t enough.”
Page 290: “…but they didn’t seem to hear much after the part about the amputation.”
Yeah or Neah?
I know not much was said about the actual content of the book but I wanted to leave you to form your own opinions about patient interactions, the long hours, and his thoughts on learning the art of the scalpel. The book comes highly recommend by many pre-meds. It’s been called one of the most important books of our time since the House of God. Yeah, get the book and learn the emotional aspect of a surgeon’s personality.