Book Review: Hot Lights, Cold Steel: Life, Death and Sleepless Nights in a Surgeon’s First Years

I read Hot Lights, Cold Steel a few months back, and I decided now that I really need to write a book review on it. 

If you are a pre-health student, you probably enjoy getting insights into the medical profession through shadowing, experiences, and even TV shows.  This book combines positive aspects from all three of these categories. 

Hot lights, cold steel is captivating and exciting. This book will have you up all night reading just to find out where Dr. Michael Collins journey takes him. Here is an in-depth review.

About the Book

Michael Collins, the author, writes about his experiences as an orthopedic surgeon resident at Mayo Clinic.  Dr. Collins took the non-traditional route to medical school.  He started his adult life as a blue-collar worker barely making ends meet.  Dr. Collins found his passion for medicine and began the challenging journey of becoming an orthopedic surgeon.

At the beginning of the book, Dr. Collins feels out of place as a non-traditional student in the midst of all the IV league interns with many published research articles.  But through hard work and being a problem solver, Dr. Collins is able to grow into one of the top surgeons in his residency.

Everything is written in a first-person format with vivid detail in an entertaining narrative.  The book is filled with interesting events in the OR and emergency room, as well as personal life anecdotes that coincide with the hectic surgeon life.  This book also provides a vivid portrayal of what it is like to endure the training process of becoming a full-blown doctor.

Making Difficult Choices

Hot Lights, Cold Steel does an excellent job of portraying the difficult decisions a surgeon has to make.

A 12-year old boy comes into the ER with a mangled leg from a tractor accident on the farm. Dr. Collins is faced with the decision about whether or not he should try saving the boys leg or cut it off.  The decision is between vastly improving the boys quality of life for the increased risk of death or choosing to be safe.

These are the kinds of decisions doctors must face and it is important that one realizes the kind of emotional toll that sometimes comes with having to make these decisions.  Being a physician is a very important and rewarding career, but it is not for everyone.

An Example For Premed Students With Families

One thing I found really interesting was his marriage life.  Dr. Collins is married (with kids!) prior to entering into his residency.  What I liked about this is that he proves that being a father/ husband and a resident is completely possible.  I think a lot of people believe you need to choose one: either your career as a doctor or a family.  But that couldn’t be further from the truth as proved in Dr. Collins experiences.  If you want both, you will have both.  Even if you aren’t in the same situation going into medical school, his incredible ability to balance family and work is an illuminative example to any student.

Even though Dr. Collins is able to balance work life and being a father, there are plenty of hardships both him and his wife go through.

For Dr. Collins, the extra expense means more work.  Dr. Collins reminds the reader that residents do not make a “doctor salary.”  His friends outside medicine expect him to be driving luxury class cars but Dr. Collins goes into great comical detail about the various clunkers he purchases and fixes up throughout his residencies.

In order to make ends meet, Dr. Collins spends many weekends moonlighting at another emergency room. Residency alone is tough work, tacking on moonlighting can seem overwhelming, but Dr. Collins proves that anything is possible with the right attitude and support.

The book also covers the challenges Mrs. Collins faces as the wife of a surgeon. It is a good reminder to everyone in a relationship that even though you need tunnel vision to become a doctor, your spouse or significant other is still a human being with needs.  This means making sacrifices for your family/relationship even when it isn’t the best decision for your career.


Hot lights, Cold Steel is an easy read and highly enjoyable.  It is also a good motivational tool — learning more about the profession you are going into can excite you for what is ahead.  Through Dr. Collins, you will experience what surgical residency is really like.  Whether it is a late night in the ER, the fight to save someone’s life, or the experience of his first cut in surgery, you are really immersed into Dr. Collins life as an orthopedic surgeon.    

This is truly a must-read for any premed student. Do yourself a favor and buy it on Amazon today! 

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