Oliver Sacks, a dear colleague of mine at The New Yorker and in the world of medicine, was an inspiration to me and to countless physicians. A great deal will be said in the coming days about Oliver’s unique literary output—masterful books including “An Anthropologist on Mars,” “Awakenings,” and “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.” But we should remember that he also embodied in his medical practice a kind of ideal approach—creative, sensitive, and large-hearted—to his many patients. He was an extraordinary and exemplary doctor.
Neurology is often depicted as a discipline of great detachment. Sacks, who was eighty-two when he died, trained in the field before the advent of the CT scan and the MRI. He learned to observe his patients in extreme detail, calling on his professional training and uncanny perception to make meticulous analyses of motor strength, reflexes, sensation, and mental status; in doing so, he arrived at a diagnosis that might locate a lesion within the anatomy of the brain or spinal cord. And yet, because medical technology had only gone so far in those days, once this intellectual exercise was completed, there was often very little that could be done to ameliorate most neurological maladies.
Sacks showed that it was possible to overcome this limited perspective. He questioned absolutist categories of normal and abnormal, healthy and debilitated. He did not ignore or romanticize the suffering of the individual. He sought to locate not just the affliction but a core of creative possibility and a reservoir of potential that was untapped in the patient...
Sacks was a contrarian who refused to compromise this approach to the sick and the suffering. He resisted the powerful current of modern practice that seeks the generic. He rejected a monolithic mindset, and retrieved the individual from the obscuring blanket of statistics. This put him outside of the academy, exiled to chronic-care institutions. Through his writing, Sacks ultimately received recognition for advancing a unique form of clinical scholarship that was largely abandoned: the study of the single person within the context of his own life. Ever the acute observer, his case histories confirmed that under a single diagnostic term was a spectrum of human biology. No two patients are ever the same, he emphasized...Rest in peace.
Sacks made house calls, not only in California and New York where he practiced, but globally, visiting Dr. “Bennet,” a surgeon with Tourette’s syndrome in rural Canada or the autistic artist Stephen Wiltshire on a tour of Europe. In these visits, he practiced what might be called the medicine of friendship, showing genuine interest and respect to people who are often shunned. This was the therapeutic intervention when neurology lacked effective pills or procedures.
This did not mean Sacks was a Luddite. He was an avid reader of scientific journals, fascinated by scientific advancements in imaging the nervous system at work. He engaged in dialogue with Nobel laureates and lab scientists about the nature of consciousness, providing what they lacked—the insights of a naturalist, a field worker.
Sacks also embodied an attribute that can be lost after people become famous: a boundless generosity of spirit. He encouraged young doctors and scientists to record their experiences and communicate them in prose, celebrating their endeavors rather than seeing them as a form of competition or threat. I believe his intense curiosity and boundless energy moved him to want to learn from the succeeding generation, as great teachers do...
"No two patients are ever the same," he emphasized.Yes, and it goes well beyond our infatuation with the scientific / technological aspects of the nascent "Personalized Medicine" industry.