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

(St. Martin's, 2005)

This is Dr. Michael J. Collins' memoir of his four years as a surgical resident at Minnesota's Mayo Clinic. It's quite a story. I don't usually think of memoirs as page-turners, but this one kept me up until 2 a.m. last night -- and appropriately enough, since most of the book deals with a sleep-deprived resident's life.

I don't know when Collins did his residency, but his memoir has something of a sepia tone. All the doctors are men, all the nurses are women. Collins and his wife are good Irish Catholics -- they made four babies during their four years at Mayo (and went on to have eight more). They lived paycheck-to-paycheck, eating mac & cheese, driving old beaters -- he goes through three in the book, and claims a Mayo record. The residents like beer, sports and other manly stuff. They and the girls are always ready with a polished (or rough) quip to match the occasion.

OK, so Collins is a good Irish storyteller -- but he really did have life-or-death decisions to make, there in the ER at 3 a.m., and he did find out that, even when he did everything right, he would lose patients. A boy dies from a farm accident: "It was the first time I had ever seen someone die, and it wasn't what I expected. It was so matter-of-fact, so ordinary. His pressure dropped, his heart quit, and he died."

So there's something primal here that we folk living ordinary lives usually don't get to see. But you'd be very lucky to see Mike Collins working in the ER, when your ambulance pulls in. It's an unusual and effective memoir, highly recommended.

by Peter Tillman
1 April 2006

Buy it from Amazon.com.