Saturday, August 22, 2015

"Modestly Endowed"

For the first 35 years and nearly 150 pages of his memoir, On the Move, we are presented with a drug-addled, body-building biker and in his own words a slovenly, slap-dash scientist. Not at all the prelude to the brilliant writer of 13 books on neurological phenomena, the great empathetic clinician and story-teller, Oliver Sacks, who sadly is now terminally ill.

England was a good place for a Gay man to leave in the 1950s. Throughout this latest and last book Dr. Sacks tells us he is modestly endowed and socially shy. Yet he was friends with ex-pat poets W.C. Auden and Thomas Gunn along with Benjamin Britten. In his circle was the editor of the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker for whom he wrote numerous articles, Abba Eban (his cousin), the gifted director, author, wit and physician, Jonathan Miller, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman and Robin Williams and scores of fellow neurologists in both research and clinical practice.

He was also a classical music concertgoer, daily swimmer, mountain climber, weight lifter and voluminous journal-keeper with 1000 volumes. At age 75 he was knighted.

Given the breadth of his experiences and prodigious achievements Oliver Sacks is as close to a renaissance man as anyone who comes to mind. When he described himself as modestly endowed he was comparing his mind to a Nobel recipient in research neuro-physiology. Sacks possesses a hungering mind and spirit with a compassion for his patients that brought him to the periphery of medicine. Many became life-long friends.

I was struck by his several early death-defying moments in high surf off Venice Beach, in the mountains of Norway chased by a bull and during high-speed motorcycle excursions when he would routinely ride 500 miles from UCLA to the Grand Canyon after work on weekends and return the next day. In another incident he lifted a weight of 1000 lbs and tried 1,200 only to have it nearly crush his chest.

If he lived heedless of risk he was also defiant of margins, of the rules of medical rigidity. His passion for people drew him into areas beyond the norms. All his books came out of case studies. These led him into fields as varied as migraine sufferers, post-encephalic awakenings, musicophilia, sign language, Tourette’s syndrome, color-blindness and autism.

There are still great divides in medicine. His approach is more anecdotal and idiosyncratic than standard research models. He has a gift for narrative that breaks the restraints of clinical research. His work with aberrant behaviors led him into the very source of human consciousness. We need more spillover, more inter-disciplinary probing, more literary scientists and certainly more Oliver Sacks to bind this fractured world and to bless us with his capacious heart.

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