Oliver Sacks was a skilled neurologist, but what made him so irreplaceable was his remarkable talent for storytelling.
Soon after cancer ended his 82 years of life early on Sunday morning, it was clearer than ever that he will be most remembered for his memoir Awakenings, which was adapted to become a hit film starring Robin Williams in 1990. However, this is just one story, one example of the awakenings that Sacks brought about.
The stunning story of how he used what was then an experimental drug called L-DOPA to lift his patients out of a catatonic stupor is certainly worthy of a legacy all on its own, but Sacks was by no means a one-trick pony. So many people who have curled up with one of his 13 books, listened to one of his several appearances on the podcast Radiolab or saw him speak in person at an event such as the TED talk he gave several years ago have experienced their own Sacks-spurred awakenings. Whether discussing the society developed by an island of colorblind people or a man who mistook his wife for a hat, he opened so many eyes to phenomena that demand a re-evaluation of our world.
His aptitude for doing so was a evident as ever in his latest book — apart from the memoir he published this past spring — called "Hallucinations." Sacks takes a phenomenon that has become regarded as a hallmark of insanity and tells stories of real people, many of whom were his own patients, who make that stigma seem utterly absurd. He tells of a 95-year-old woman who was blind, but completely sane despite the fact that she suddenly began to experience vivid and elaborate hallucinations. The hallucinations turned out to be a sign of nothing more than a brain whose visual cortex refused to lie dormant after the loss of vision.
While reading the book, I had an awakening of my own when the chapter on migraine led me to realize that I've been experiencing hallucinations for years, but never thought of them that way because of the stigma surrounding hallucination. I now understand that those shimmering arcs of green and purple light that I so clearly see just before I'm struck with a migraine headache are no less a hallucination than the "people in eastern dress and drapes walking up and down stairs" that 95-year-old Rosalie saw.
In a way, Sacks' entire career was a kind of awakening, or at least a re-awakening.
"Almost unconsciously, I became a storyteller at a time when medical narrative was almost extinct," he wrote in mid-August, in what would become his final piece in the New York Times. During the 1960s, when Sacks was beginning his career, doctors weren't writing books about their experiences with their patients.
He goes on in that same piece to say that, "I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one's life as well, when one can feel that one's work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest." Sacks was raised in an orthodox Jewish household but was never a religious man himself, in part because of the anguish religion brought upon him for being attracted to men.
During his final days, Sacks seemed to experience a re-awakening of his positive feelings about religion. In the Jewish religion, the Sabbath is observed from sundown on Friday until sundown the next day. Fittingly, Sacks lived to see one last Sabbath in full, leaving the world for his final resting place mere hours after the end of his final day of rest.