Oliver Sacks


Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and writer, has died. He was in his 80s and was afflicted by melanoma.

I first read his book of neurological case studies, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, many years ago. I’ve read most of his other books. In those case studies, and in his other works, he revealed a remarkable sensitivity to the subjective experiences of his patients. Thus he told us how he saw his patients, objectively as a neurologist, and he helped us to understand and imagine the inner lives of his patients; how their afflictions felt to them.

The eponymous case was a distinguished pianist, a professor, whose stroke damaged his ability to create short term memories. He also suffered from an inability to recognize faces, hence his problem with a hat. Sacks reasoned that since the brain’s processes for ordinary memories and for musical memories were different, handled by different parts of the brain, perhaps his patient could keep track of his day by singing to himself. This proved helpful. Eventually, someone wrote an opera about the case that has been performed.

Another memorable case, to me, was a patient who had lost the proprioceptive sense that his leg was his own. He saw this strange “cadaver’s” leg in the hospital bed next to him, and thinking that the staff was playing a horrible practical joke on him, tossed it from the bed. This left him on the floor and very angry.

In Sacks book about Migraines, he described the migrainous aura, a kind of eerie feeling, sometimes accompanied by hallucinations, that some patients experience in the early stages of an attack. Holes in their vision, radiating beams of light, crenelated forms, and other shapes are characteristic. Sacks then shows us drawings from the notebooks of Hildegard von Bingen, a medieval nun and abbess. Her drawings are similar to those made by modern migraine patients showing us what they see. Hildegard, however, had interpreted those visual forms as messages to her from God, pictures of Heaven. Sacks does not dismiss her powerful and sincere experiences by reducing them to “merely” a headache. Instead he points to her spiritual genius through which she translated her suffering into service to the world and to her God.

He wrote a book about certain Parkinson’s patients he treated in the 1950s. These were people who had the Spanish influenza and recovered, in 1918 and 1919. In the 1930s they fell into a kind of paralysis or catatonia. Sacks guessed that while their ability for voluntary movement had been lost, their mental processes might still be intact. He tried treating them with L-dopa, a new Parkinson’s drug, with remarkable and ultimately distressing results. This story was made into a movie, Awakenings, with Robin Williams playing Dr. Sacks, and Robert DeNiro playing one of the patients.

He wrote an interesting memoir, Uncle Tungsten, about his childhood and youth in Britain during the 1930s and 40s.

When he received the news that his melanoma had metastasized and was no longer treatable a few months ago, he wrote several op-ed essays for the New York Times, saying good bye and assessing his life.

As I try to understand others, not just the people I meet here in Tampa, but those I read about in the news or history, I try to model my thoughts after Sacks beautiful and powerful empathy. I recognize this same quality, by the way, in your sympathetic accounts of the motivations of Confederate soldiers.

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