It looked for a while like Mike Collins would spend his life breaking concrete and throwing rocks for the Vittorio Scalese Construction Company. He liked the work and he liked the pay. But a chance remark by one of his coworkers made him realize that he wanted to involve himself in something bigger, something more meaningful than crushing rocks and drinking beer.
In his acclaimed first memoir, Hot Lights, Cold Steel, Collins wrote passionately about his experiences as a surgical resident at the prestigious Mayo Clinic. Blue Collar, Blue Scrubs turns back the clock, taking readers from his days as a construction worker to his entry into medical school, expertly infusing his journey to become a doctor with humanity, compassion and humor. From the first time he delivers a baby to being surrounded by death and pain on a daily basis, Collins compellingly writes about how medicine makes him confront, in a very deep and personal way, the nature of God and suffering—and how delicate life can be.
What are some things readers wouldn't know about you?
1. I am a hockey player who likes poetry.
2. I never ate a bagel until I was thirty-five years old.
3. I never, EVER missed a meal (including breakfast) the whole 3-1/2 years I was at Notre Dame. Even if I had been up til four in the morning the night before, I would get up, struggle over to the south dining hall, gobble down an obscene amount of eggs and bacon (but no bagels, remember?) and then go back to bed—until lunch time. And, believe it or not, I wasn't fat. Well, at least I wasn't that fat. Join the Mailing List
4. I like fires, not the firebug, arsonist kind, but wood, burning in a fireplace. There is something so elemental, so soothing, about sitting in a dark room staring into a fire. I do it almost every night in winter.
5. I always wanted to be a writer—even before I wanted to be a doctor. I'm grateful to have had a couple books published (and hopefully more on the way) but I'm even more grateful to be able to practice medicine.
6. I worry about explaining the profanity and "adult situations" in Blue Collar, Blue Scrubs to my (and your) children. I don't want to glorify them, but there's no sense pretending they don't exist. Hopefully our kids will realize that sometimes you can laugh at things, even bad things, without condoning or participating in them. If any of you figure out a good way to do this, let me know.
Do you think your experiences as a construction worker helped you become a better doctor?
Absolutely. As a surgeon I don't treat conditions, I treat people. Somewhere in Blue Collar, Blue Scrubs I mention my belief that it is just as important for doctors to understand people as it is for them to understand pathology. The years I spent throwing rocks, driving cabs and working on truck docks have made me much more understanding of the concerns and desires of the normal, everyday people I have been privileged to treat over the years.
Who are your favorite authors?
I am not a very discriminating reader. My tastes are eclectic, and I am rather easy to please. Of current writers I would have to include Sebastian Barry, Mark Helprin, Cormac MacCarthy, David McCullough, and Alistair MacLeod. Going back to the oldies but goodies, Shakespeare, of course, Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, some guy named Hemingway, and two rather obscure Scottish writers: Neil Gunn (who wrote several really good, and a couple really bad, novels) and WH Murray (never heard of him? Check him out. He has some of the most evocative and thoughtful essays on mountaineering ever written). I enjoy poetry, too: William Butler Yeats, Matthew Arnold, and William Wordsworth are my favorite old-timers. Of modern poets I like Billy Collins (no relation) who has mastered the knack of being accessible but still meaty.
What are the worst books you ever read?
Sometimes a book is so bad that I just can't finish it, but if we are talking about books that I have actually struggled through, wallowing in masochistic self-pity, cover to cover, there are two that come immediately to mind: Walking Drum by Louis L'Amour (and, no, I am not a genre snob. I like a lot of Louis' books—just not this one. Really not this one) and Harlot's Ghost by Norman Mailer (take that for what it's worth. Norman Mailer was an icon and is still worshipped everywhere. Mike Collins is an orthopod whose total book sales probably don't equal what Mailer would sell in a month. But I stand by what I said—that book was awful.)
What is the Best Book You Ever Read?
You're going to hate me, I know, but I'd have to say War and Peace. Yes, it's ungodly long, and yes, all those Russian names are confusing, but God what an incredible work of art Tolstoy has given the world. If you haven't read it, grit your teeth, throw away the Tivo, turn off the cell phone, and sit down to a great reading experience. (Lest you think I'm a Tolstoy freak or a total egghead, I confess to never having cared much for Anna Karenina—sorry, Oprah)
Do you really have twelve kids?
I think so. Otherwise why is it so noisy around here all the time, and why do I never seem to be able to get into a bathroom? And, yes, they are all from the same marriage, and, no, there's no twins, and yes I know all their birthdays and no, we're not members of some weird procreation cult (well, I take that back. We're Catholics), and yes, yes, yes, Patti is a saint.
Do you really have seven brothers (and no sisters)?
Yup, it's true. My brothers and I had a blast growing up. We had a hockey rink in the backyard and a boxing ring in the second floor of our garage (an old barn). Only in retrospect have we all realized how hard it must have been on our mom. I was fifteen years old before I knew my mom had a first name. I never heard anyone call her anything but "your poor mother." It was never "How's your mom?" or "How's Nancy?" It was always a slow shake of the head and a pitying, "How's your poor mother?" And, yes, my mom really did give up alcohol for a year in a blatant effort to bribe God into letting me into medical school. God, like everyone else, loves my mom, so He gave in on that one.
After driving around in all those junkers for so many years, what kind of car do you drive now?
A Ford Escape—with only 59,000 miles on it!
Do you still practice medicine?
Yes, that is mostly what I do. I am still in the full-time practice of orthopedic surgery and I love it. One of the reasons I wrote Hot Lights, Cold Steel is to encourage young people to go into medicine. It is the most rewarding career imaginable, and I feel privileged to be a doctor.
Any plans for another book?
Yes. I am working on something now, fiction this time. More later, once I convince myself it isn't total junk.