“Every act of perception, is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.”
Oliver Sacks first appeared to me in the form of Robin Williams disguised as the timid neurologist, Dr. Malcolm Sayer in the beautifully emotional film, Awakenings.
My initial attraction to the film were the claims of Robert De Niro´s character preparation for the role of patient Leonard Lowe. Sacks had said how De Niro spent a great deal of time with real patients in an effort to understand something of how it feels to be so chronically disabled by Sleeping Sickness (Encephalitis lethargica) and to represent as accurately as possible the quality of disability.
I also held a fascination for the condition. A mysterious virus that swept the planet attacking brains, damaging the nerve cells and causing symptoms ranging from acute restlessness or insomnia to Parkinson’s type dementia and in extreme cases, a paralyzed trance-like coma, as portrayed by De Niro.
The revelation of furthering understanding of our brains through the study of neurological disorders surged an interest within. A faculty that could provide more insight into our enigmatic psychology was an additional channel to mentally explore. Sacks’ morals, motives and methods were the highlight and, sourcing a copy of the book, I became entranced in Sacks’ true account of Awakenings.
“In examining disease, we gain wisdom about anatomy and physiology and biology. In examining the person with disease, we gain wisdom about life.”
Sacks’ gentle prose and open personality showed the genius lurking behind the shy awkwardness that Williams had so brilliantly portrayed. Sacks’ display of empathy to patients, some of whom were unable to return a conscious response, alongside the challenging conversations he faced to convince family members and hospital managers the need for experimental medication and the courage shown by patients whom understood their predicament left me emotionally adjusted and inspired.
I had already picked up a copy of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat for my next encounter with the neurologist who was now a regular in conversation with family and friends and the chapters more than filled follow up discussions with their collection of odd case studies, some so bizarre as surpassing any fiction I could remember. The medley of maladies gave question of the most normal of considered behaviours and the contrast of these unfortunate, humbling personalities managing these disorders was comically engaging.
“To be ourselves we must have ourselves – possess, if need be re-possess, our life-stories. We must “recollect” ourselves, recollect the inner drama, the narrative, of ourselves. A man needs such a narrative, a continuous inner narrative, to maintain his identity, his self.”
An opportunity to get closer to Oliver Sacks came along in The Island of the Colorblind. Another window into the world of neurological variety, this time on the isolated Micronesian islands of Pingelap and Guam, alongside travel journal, personal enquiry and botanical interest. I understood the initial attraction for a neurologist to be presented with a community of people displaying a common anomaly in the confines of island isolation and wondered why this approach wasn’t more common in the fields of medical research. Roughly one in twelve on Pingelap are born with total colorblindness. Their condition blinds them from sunlight and blurs patterns and texture, but enhances their perception of movement and illuminates the night sky. Sacks distributes a stock of polarizing sunglasses which allow the patients to wander unhindered in the daylight and experience a world usually avoided.
More fascinating was his visit to Guam, where he set up a clinic to better diagnose people with a puzzling neurodegenerative paralysis (similar to that of Sleeping Sickness). Sacks’ gentle approach and charm allowed intimate conversation with some of the islands worst inflicted, such as Tomasa, who Sacks visited several times before she passed away.
“This acceptance of the sick person as a person, a living part of the community, extends to those with chronic and incurable illness, who may, like Tomasa, have years of invalidism. I thought of my own patients with advanced ALS in New York, all in hospitals or nursing homes, with nasogastric tubes, suction apparatus, sometimes respirators, every sort of technical support—but very much alone, deliberately or unconsciously avoided by their relatives, who cannot bear to see them in this state, and almost prefer to think of them (as the hospital does) not as human beings, but as terminal medical cases on full “life support,” getting the best of modern medical care. Such patients are often avoided by doctors too, written, even by them, out of the book of life.”
Setting out to understand the world in full color and to not be satisfied until nature reveals her true behaviour, Sacks discusses his life-long fascination with the primitive plants that reside on the island, persues his interests in culture and botany to investigate local histories, the dissemination of species and the botanical ingredients of local cuisine in order to try and identify the roots of disease.
For anyone who has enjoyed the travel writing and especially the botanical element of The Island of the Colorblind, I recommend Oaxaca Journal, where Sacks explors the giant, ancient ferns of Oaxaca in Mexico and muses on the origins of chocolate and mescal, pre-Columbian culture and hallucinogens.
Another collection of case studies arrived in An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales, which I picked up for a long flight to Kuala Lumpur. Containing seven medical case histories of individuals with neurological conditions such as autism and Tourette syndrome, Sacks’ spent time getting to know the patients as one would a friend and described their personalities separate to their conditions. The maladies were painted as mere nuances which accompanied these individuals and gave each of them an individual richness, an interest for discussion. The case I remember clearly was that of Dr. Carl Bennett, a surgeon and amateur pilot with Tourette syndrome. Often beset by tics and animated lunges, consultations with his own patients were usually accompanied with instable jerks and jolts whilst he is explaining the intricacies of the forthcoming operation. As soon as the scalpel is placed into his hand, his tics vanish for the duration of his concentration. The same restfulness alludes when taking the controls of his Cessna for what Sacks describes as a jolly smooth flight.
Sacks’ approach again lead me to believe that a compassionate interest and a polymathic knowledge goes a lot further than the standard diagnosis and prescription. To share his intimate narritive, is to derive wisdom from someone who has shown through their actions, an admiration and in turn earned the respect of an elder, a father-figure and a great inspiration, in a time when these old fashioned, pioneering heroes are needed most.
Sacks went on to write several further books, specialising on single subjects, many of which were influenced by his own neurological conditions. A case of phantom limb struck him following a climbing accident, described in A Leg to Stand On. A complete colorblindness in one eye is described in The Mind’s Eye and his passion for music and its effects on the brain in Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain.
Sacks opened up more in his later life and wrote an emotional autobiography. Describing his anxieties and shyness, his hidden homosexuality and his reflexions on his life’s actions. He has left a legacy in his writings, some which I shall visit again to spend the time with a person whom I admire and who filled a space for which I yearned to be taught and loved.
Sacks will always be preset in my thoughts and will stand alongside other teachers I’ve chosen to enrich my path to a greater understanding of the human condition, our nuances and respect for others. While I’ve chosen to stand back and observe the world as a visitor, I often crave for the intimacies shared by those who have spent their life dedicated to their cause and where my gratitude for the wisdoms learnt is certain, I can but only hope to retain my gratitude for this life as so graciously as Sacks has until the end.
“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 I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.
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.”
All quotes from Oliver Sacks.
 The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat
 The Island of the Colorblind