Hot Lights, Cold Steel by Michael Collins, MD is a memoir of an orthopedist’s residency training at the Mayo Clinic in the 70s.
I’ve heard this book praised for offering an insightful look at the toughness of residency. I won’t be one of the book’s proponents. Many parts I found trite, drawn out, or melodramatic. After just reading Forgive and Remember, I took a while to get used to reading a memoir type work in which details are embellished just for the sake of story-telling (necessary because the manuscript is written years after the events occurred). Whatever one fills in seems to me fluff, written purely for the entertainment value. He recalls plenty of witty banter between him and his wife or fellow residents. He digresses at times into imaginary scenes in which his nightmare scenarios play out.
I didn’t care for it.
At first I thought I just had trouble relating to this guy. He comes from a blue collar background, holding a job as a construction working before pursuing medicine. Despite being elected chief resident at the Mayo, he had no academic aspirations. He joins a private practice outside Chicago. He is Irish Catholic and probably doesn’t practice birth control: the couple had four kids by the end of residency and they have 12 children now. I can’t see myself doing that. Maybe I’m being elitist and imposing my value system on others.
Reflecting on the book’s style, however, I realized that my college essays followed the same structure and espoused a strikingly similar message. We did have something in common. He was talking about residency, his first training in surgery. I was talking about my internship at the NIH during high school, my first exposure to experimental science. It was hard. I felt exhausted when I came home. The commute was long. Everything failed despite my best efforts. At times I felt I was doing the work of a mechanic, technician, monkey. Everyone around me seemed to know so much more, both in terms of knowledge and technical mastery. The onslaught of jargon and acronyms at group meetings hit me like the water from a fire hose, yet I forced myself to drink. As luck would have it, things worked out. By the end of the experience, I had found the more noble reasons for doing what I was doing (for doctors, helping people; for scientists, discovering knowledge). Success followed. Ya-dee-ya-da.
There must some phrase that captures this process exactly–something less dramatic than ‘overcoming adversity.’ These sentiments were the ones that got me into college. In several essays and interviews, I said I looked forward to the educational reputations of schools like UChicago and MIT: intense, demanding, not much fun when you’re in it but becomes greatly appreciated when you’re done. I suspect that this mentality will also help me get into med school. One dean was particularly interested in how my research advisor welcomed me to the lab: he said my goal would be to learn about failure, not necessarily to produce something scientifically important (although that would be a plus, it’s not expected). Tough experiences teach us the most. Is it masochistic to desire a rigorous education?