We are all guilty at times.
We encounter a person who is clearly compromised in some way. He is strapped to a chair because of a physical disability. She is mentally incapacitated and cannot communicate with others, or perhaps she talks incessantly, communicating only with herself. We see these people but we do not really see them. We do not think of them as people like us.
We see them as “others.”
Oliver Sacks thought no such thing.
Sacks, a British neurologist who lived, taught, practiced medicine, contemplated the human condition and wrote about it all from New York City for 50 years, died late last month at 82. Remarkable is not an adequate word to describe Sacks’ take on life and on humanity, however damaged we might regard certain individuals. Sacks respected the people he treated, whomever they were and whatever conditions they suffered, as complex human beings with strengths and weaknesses — just like you and me.
Said Sacks, “I love to discover potential in people who aren’t thought to have any.”
As a physician and scientist working in some of the most prestigious and elite universities in our country, Sacks became well known to the general public through his writing. Awakenings was a 1990 movie starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro based upon Sacks’ book about patients in catatonic states from sleeping sickness — some for decades — whom he treated with an unconventional drug. His treatment revived them, restoring his patients to individuals desperate to resume the sort of normal lives you and I share. In the movie as in life, though, the patients slipped back to wherever they had been no matter how much medicine they were given.
Sacks was a physician all of us would want if we found ourselves with a neurological condition, but his gift, mission, calling — however we choose to describe it — was not only to treat people with little-known neurological and mental conditions, but to understand and respect them as human beings.
Then he shared what he had learned about his unusual patients with everyone else.
Sacks’ writings include: The Mind’s Eye, a recounting of how people with brain injuries compensate, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, the story of a man whose brain lost the ability to understand what he was seeing and Seeing Voices, an account of how deaf people perceive language. Sacks also studied, treated and helped us understand people with migraines, Asperger’s Syndrome, colorblindness, Tourette’s Syndrome, Parkinson’s disease, amnesia, hallucinations, and, in a book about his own muscle surgery, A Leg to Stand On, the chemical and neurological mysteries of our bodies and minds.
A skilled pianist, Sacks believed music fundamental to human beings, hard wired into our brains and cited as evidence music’s ability to reach even the most demented among us. Said Sacks, “I think we are an essentially, profoundly musical species… for all I know, language piggybacked on music.”
He noted that chimpanzees do not dance.
Oliver Sacks was not without his critics.
Some found him heavy on anecdotal evidence, light on actual science, large on ego and commercial. Tom Shakespeare, a disability rights activist, referred to Sacks as “the man who mistook his patients for a literary career.” Strict scientific researchers found him all over the place.
Many of us live with common conditions of our era — heart troubles, lung difficulties, diabetes among them, conditions well understood and well managed with conventional treatments. Sacks worked in a murky world inhabited by small numbers of patients, human beings who suffered nevertheless. He treated and wrote about people coping with and adapting to neurological conditions involving perception, memory and individuality that, blessedly, few of us will ever encounter.
His legacy is that he helped us understand and have empathy for people who suffer conditions we will never know.
Oliver Sacks, who at 81 still swam a mile a day, died of a rare variety of melanoma. As a physician, he understood exactly what was happening to him and shared his thoughts in the New York Times earlier this year.
“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved. I have been given much and have given in return. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”
Sacks explored what he called “many strange, neuropsychological lands — the furthest arctics and tropics of neurological disorder.”
None of us want to visit these lands, but we are fortunate and grateful that he did and that he told us about them. What Sacks learned might not help many of us, but for those it does, his efforts and what he shared about consciousness and the human condition is profound.