It’s a fine spring day, the last of April. I’ve been sitting outside in the back yard all afternoon, plowing through Michael Collins’ memoir Blue Collar, Blue Scrubs: The Making of a Surgeon.
The first-born in an Irish-Catholic family of eight boys, Collins pursued an undergraduate degree in liberal arts from Notre Dame University before taking a job with a construction company breaking concrete for a living. Although he enjoyed the hard work, the long hours, the camaraderie (as well as the beer consumed on the job and in the pubs afterward), Collins reached a point where he needed to make a decision about what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. The answer he hit upon was to become a doctor.
It was an uphill battle. Collins had to spend two years completing pre-requisite courses in chemistry, physics and biology and sit for the MCAT just to be able to apply to medical school. Although he aced his science courses, his MCAT scores were average. Rejected by 7 of the 8 medical schools to which he applied, when Collins pleaded with the Dean of Students at Loyola in Chicago to be given a chance, he got in.
Blue Collar, Blue Scrubs describes his journey through medical school up to the beginnings of his orthopedic surgical residency at the Mayo Clinic. Collins spins the tale with wit, humor and pathos.
Throughout his training, while immersed in the seemingly overwhelming tedious task of rote memorization, Collins lapses into philosophical thought. “What, then, makes us human? A beating heart? A cogitating brain? Or is there something more, something, for want of a better word, we call a soul?”
At the conclusion of the first autopsy he witnesses, a pathologist tells him: “You have now peered into the deepest recesses of the human body and discovered the secrets of life.” As he files out of the room with his fellow students, Collins muses that “we haven’t even come close.”
Throughout his rigorous training Collins somehow manages to hold on to his humanity. He never loses sight of why he wanted to become a doctor in the first place: to render assistance to his fellow human beings, to alleviate their suffering.
It is good for seasoned clinicians to be reminded of such altruistic motives. Whenever I lose a patient to a terminal illness, I gravitate to the family. I sit with significant others, share the information I have at hand and prepare myself to listen to what they have to tell me. To do otherwise would be a disservice both to them and to myself; for in these instances, I’ve discovered that I need such interactions to help myself heal.
Patients are not the only ones who suffer.