Oliver Sacks, Re-Awakening

            Dr Oliver Sacks earnt his medical degree at Queen’s College, Oxford University, in 1958 and went on to become a world-renowned ‘poet laureate of contemporary medicine.’ His non-fiction book ‘Awakenings’ was published in 1973 to almost immediate critical acclaim and later inspired Harold Pinter’s play ‘A Kind of Alaska.’ This ground-breaking text helped to affirm his reputation as a man capable of reinforcing the emotional impacts of the psychological and physical illnesses he had studied during his time at Oxford: of making the inhumane human. ‘Awakenings’ was a series of case studies discussing some of his patients who had been treated with drugs to wake them from a catatonic state; Dr Sacks describes how through ‘Awakening…the patient ceases to feel the presence of illness and the absence of the world, and comes to feel the absence of his illness and the full presence of the world.’ All of the patients referenced in the book had been victims of the 1920s Encephalitis Lethargica epidemic, essentially a chronic condition where sufferers found themselves incapable of engaging in the world around them due to extreme and endless fatigue. Dr Sacks treated these patients using the then-new drug L-DOPA during the 1960s at the Beth Abraham Hospital (now Beth Abraham Health Services) in the Bronx, New York. When looking back on his treatment in 1982, after ‘Awakenings’ had been subject to much praise and even awarded the Hawthornden Prize in 1974, Dr Sacks wrote, ‘I have become much more optimistic than I was when I…wrote ‘Awakenings,’ [my] patients have undergone an enduring awakening, and enjoy possibilities of life which had been impossible, unthinkable, before the coming of L-DOPA.’ The ‘awakening’ discussed here is an overtly medical one where the patient’s regaining of consciousness is seen to directly condition his recovery, and yet Sacks’ work has emotional connotations too. His clinical methods were unusual as Dr Sacks subverted the tradition of using a case history in order to arrive at a diagnosis, indeed, for him, this became secondary to his desire to preserve the individual’s core identity in spite of their mental illness or disorder. Dr Sacks places each of his patients on a generous pedestal where they rightly becoming the hero of their own story of suffering as we experience their capacity for growth and resilience through Dr Sacks’ beautiful prose. One of the particularly memorable life-stories speaks of a painter who went colour-blind but was encouraged by Dr Sacks to continue exploring his media and ultimately found a new lease of artistic life painting only in black and white. Part of the reason Dr Sacks was recognised as the ‘poet laureate of contemporary medicine’ was due to the fact that  quickly established himself as a writer, as much as a doctor and scientist, becoming a regular contributor to both the New York Times and the New York Review of Books. Sadly, Dr Sacks died of terminal cancer in the summer of 2015, aged 82. ‘Awakenings’ is an important and influential book which has as much relevance for the heathy as the sick and will surely continue his legacy for years to come.

© 2020 by AMBER SIDNEY-WOOLLETT