The TV interview with a Birmingham doctor that changed my life

Mike Royer

Today’s guest columnist is Mike Royer.

I could tell you all about interviewing Jimmy Carter when he was running for President in 1976.

Or, the 20 minutes I spent interviewing President Bill Clinton right after he was first elected.

I think they’re pretty good stories and I’d be happy to tell you about the interviews sometime.

I’ll never forget spending two days with General Paul Tibbets who piloted the Enola Gay dropping the first atomic bomb helping bring an end to World War II.  I was privileged to interview Colonel Hal Moore who led the first battle in the Ia Drang Valley of Vietnam in 1965.

But, the interviews that I think about and talk about the most are the ones with people you’ve probably never heard of.  They are everyday folks who challenged and inspired me.  Some, literally changed me for the better because of how they lived their lives and the stories they shared with me and our viewers.

I met Dr. Jim Collier, a Birmingham doctor, one time but I think about him every day.

Some of you remember the Anchorage Restaurant in Homewood.

I was coming out of there at lunchtime when a man I knew yelled from across the street; “Mike, hang on I need to talk to you.”  I waited as he jaywalked to where I was and he began by asking me if I knew Dr. Jim Collier, an ophthalmologist over at Brookwood Medical Center.  I admitted I’d never heard of him and my friend said, “Oh, you have to do a story about him…he’s dying of cancer.”

Only a few weeks earlier we had buried a friend who died of cancer and I admit I’m not proud of my initial reply. I said that I’m tired of hearing about cancer and didn’t know if I’d want to do a story about someone else facing death from cancer. The friend reached in his pocket and pulled out a small pamphlet called Radical Trust, written by James B. Collier, M.D.   I took it, promised to read it, and I did.

It was only 11 pages long, and written the day that Jim Collier was told he only had a short time to live.  As soon as I finished reading it I called the Collier home.  Dr. Collier’s wife Pam answered and said Jim would be happy to talk with you.

The first thing he said when he picked up the phone was, “Hey I watch you all the time.”  You might know that’s the nicest thing you can say to a TV person.

I told him how inspiring Radical Trust was and that I’d like to come visit him and do a story about his journey.  He invited me to come to his home the next day.  As I planned to interview him I guess I was thinking that it might be just another interview, a good one, but not any more special than most.  I was wrong.

Pam Collier met me at the door and said Jim would be out shortly.  She suggested since it was such a pretty day that I might want to do the interview on their patio.  I was alone that day and often would shoot stories myself.

In a few minutes Pam pushed Dr. Collier outside in his wheelchair.  Strapped to the side of his chair was a green oxygen tank and clear plastic tubes went across his ears and to his nose.  I had seen a set up like that before but I hadn’t recalled hearing the sound made when Dr. Collier would pause and breathe deeply getting the help from the oxygen that made talking easier.  After a sentence or sometimes in the middle of one, he would pause and take that breath that sort of became a cadence and a part of his answers.  Many of you are familiar with that sound.

Dr. Collier’s answers to my questions were kind and well thought out. I asked him about Radical Trust and how someone facing such serious health challenges could be so positive and encouraging.  For Jim Collier it all hinged on his faith.

From Radical Trust: “The rest of the story? I don’t know. Medically my prognosis is poor. I have no promises, no certainty. But I know Jesus is all I have and all I need.  I’ve learned to live in the joy of the moment. I’ve learned to practice the presence of God.”

Dr. Collier was generous with his time and I wanted to use every one of his “sound bites” in my story.  I zoomed my camera in for a close up shot of Dr. Colliers face.   I ended the interview with this; “Dr. Collier, let me end with this question, what is your prognosis?”  Not a great question to ask a dying man. I knew he was dying, his family knew that, and so did he.

His eyes left my camera and he look me squarely in the eyes and gave a wonderful answer to a very average or even poor question.

He said; “Mike, my prognosis is exactly the same as yours.

You and I are promised this moment right here, nothing more.”

He was right, wasn’t he? Do you know your prognosis?

It’s exactly the same as mine.

When I tell this story, and I often do, I remind people that this story isn’t at all about dying.  Rather it’s about living, living today to its fullest.

Knowing your prognosis, means that you know every day is a gift, one to relish and be thankful for.

I’m reminded of that every day.

Quote taken from Radical Trust by Dr. James B. Collier, M.D. Buck Publishing Company

Mike Royer is a long-time broadcaster spending more than 35 years on Birmingham television.   Before retiring he spent 7 years working with students in the school of communications at the University of Alabama.

David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

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