A Sacksophile Writes: Revisiting the Works of Oliver Sacks

in Life Beyond Medicine by

Oliver Sacks is one of the many contemporary physicians who I have looked up to as a source of motivation and inspiration. Much before I read (or watched) Awakenings, I was accidentally introduced to the body of work by Sacks. While browsing through the volumes neatly stacked on the racks of a quaint bookshop in Safdarjang Enclave, New Delhi, I picked up a strangely titled volume, “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat“. Although I did not get the book that day, the title stayed with me, and not too many days afterwards, on an insipid day, I remember purchasing it off Amazon, mostly on a whim. It arrived in due course and I ended up reading it ravenously, in one breath. I was instantly in love with the author’s ease of expressions and a command over the style of writing about complex medical discussions in a refreshingly accessible way, without dumbing it down. Oliver Sacks had an inimitable voice, a style, a unique manner of telling medical stories that was magnetic for both the medically-oriented as well as the lay reader.

Over the subsequent years, I kept reading Sacks and every book kept me hooked from the beginning till the end. As I would come to the end of a book, I would, inevitably, start feeling a twinge of guilt that I did not, professionally, choose to follow in the footsteps of the man who was fast becoming my medical idol. No sooner had I become a Sacksophile, that I read his NY Times Op Ed, titled “My Own Life”, where he speaks openly of his terminal diagnosis and the tussle over coming to terms with it. Interestingly, his favorite philosopher, David Hume, who received a terminal diagnosis at the age of 65, also titled his autobiographic reflections “My Own Life“, as Sacks points out in the NYT piece. In typical style, he writes a single line from Hume, and gives his readers a glimpse into the thoughts he harbors over the inevitability of his mortality:

And yet, one line from Hume’s essay strikes me as especially true: “It is difficult,” he wrote, “to be more detached from life than I am at present.”…

I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.

This is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future.

Dr. Sacks passed away on 30th August, 2015, and left a hole in the fabric of the medical sciences. However, again, leaning on his own words, one can see how he had come to terms with the eventual outcome of his fatal diagnosis:

My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.

Oliver Sacks
Oliver Sacks

Ever since I came to know that Bill Hayes, his partner of six years, had written a book reflecting on the memories that he had of “O”, I have been thinking of getting together all the Sacks (and Sacks-related!) books I have and read them over once again… and maybe if time (and determination) permits, write short reviews of them. I am planning to start with Mr. Hayes’ work, and work through Sacks’ autobiography and then work through his books. That this idea struck me almost on the second anniversary of his passing away is coincidental.

If you have not read his books, I strongly suggest starting with his biography (On The Move: A Life) and work your way through the rest of his substantial corpus of published works. (Just to state the obvious, here is the disclaimer for the Amazon links: The links are to the Amazon India website; I have no conflicts to declare as these are generic links I got through Google and I stand to make no monetary profits if you choose to click them). As my friends (and blog readers) know, I have always considered Richard Feynman to be one of my inspirations and idols. Oliver Sacks is a physician I have considered to be someone to look up to, someone to emulate, and someone who I had hoped to meet were I ever to travel to New York… an aspiration that will remain unrequited.

It so happens that I am an old-fashioned person who still believes in gifting people with books on their birthdays or other events (and am equally elated to receive books in return). And depending on the person (or my impression of the person’s disposition), I try to tailor the chosen book. I have, over time, gifted a number of titles, two of the most oft-chosen being Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman (Richard Feynman) and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (Oliver Sacks). Anyway. If you are a bibliophile like me, join me in celebrating the works of this master and let us read together the wonderful legacy he has left behind for all of us. Here’s to the memories of an outstanding physician, an unparalleled story-teller, an astute teacher, an articulate note-keeper, and an inspiration for many…

Skeptic Oslerphile, Scientist at the Indian Council of Medical Research, National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases. Interests include: Emerging Infections, Public Health, Antimicrobial Resistance, One Health and Zoonoses, Diarrheal Diseases, Medical Education, Medical History, Open Access, Healthcare Social Media and Health2.0. Opinions are my own!

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