Medical Empath: A Tribute to Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks, a clinical neurologist and prolific author, died August 30, 2015 at age 82 of metastatic ocular cancer. His multi-faceted resume bears mentioning in some detail even though his writings and clinical case histories do not include multiple sclerosis. His approach to the work should resonate with the reader as strongly relevant to our desire and need for care that requires the professional to get involved with his/her subjects in specific ways.

Sacks took turns serving as a consultant, professor, clinician, and board member, holding appointments at chronic care facility Beth Abraham in the Bronx, in 1966—which inspired his book AWAKENINGS; clinical professor of neurology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine from 1966 to 2007; New York University School of Medicine from 1992 to 2007, and served on the boards of The Neurosciences Institute and the New York Botanical Garden.

But it was his unique writing style that brought him recognition from the general public. In his book AWAKENINGS, he chronicled treating post-encephalitic Parkinson’s patients with the then experimental drug L-Dopa. A successful 1991 movie adaptation of the same name starred Robin Williams as a Sacks-like doctor and Robert DeNiro as one of the patients that responds well to the drug. His personal interaction and interest in his patients set him apart from garden variety researchers that published conventional study data in professional journals.

Sacks also wrote an opinion piece on migraine in the February 13, 2008 edition of the New York Times in which he detailed his own childhood experiences with silent auras, as well as offering a singular hypothesis that the geometric patterns characterizing the crescent shapes we see during a silent migraine represent the elemental underlying organization of nature in the form of these basic patterns . Such musings were not mere flights of fancy; he supported them by quoting scientists whose own migraine hallucinations followed similar patterns. His musings then led him to what he knew as a scientist about how we learn to see and naturally look for patterns to help apprehend our world. He noted how ice crystals form geometrical designs, the always circular form in which eddies swirl, and the patterns of chemical reactions. He concluded that when we see such patterns, we are seeing something universal. In his writings, Sacks often pulled such threads of seemingly disparate elements together, compelling us to see the ties that bind us to everything in creation.

Ever the humanist, Sacks and his patients sometimes kept in touch for years. Despite his friendships with people like actor/monologist Spaulding Gray—who suffered frontal lobe injury after a serious car accident and eventually took his own life—and Robin Williams, who portrayed him in AWAKENINGS—Sacks was not a celebrity hound. A former patient who was not a celebrity called in during a recent tribute show on National Public Radio claiming that she stayed in touch with Sacks over the years and always felt that he truly cared about how she was doing.

It is this empathetic quality in Sacks’ approach to caring for his neurology patients that leaps out as resonant for all of us with chronic neurological illnesses.

It resonates with the ever-louder voices in the MS community that yearn for integrated, patient-centered, compassionate care that is also organized, well-documented, up-to-date, and shared among  our health care teams. The mission of iConquerMS™ is focused on this very thing: patient-centered research and a vision, a hope, a yearning, for our treating professionals to be like the Oliver Sackses of the world.

Upon his death, tributes poured forth on social media describing how he not only wanted to study the disease, he truly wanted to see the world through the patient’s eyes and try to understand how they experienced and felt the world with their disabilities. Much like a character actor, Oliver Sacks tried to walk a mile in our shoes, to inhabit our broken bodies as much as he could—and then share it with world.

Sacks described himself as almost pathologically shy and notoriously private. Recently we’ve learned that he was a closeted gay man until the last months of his life. Perhaps he could relate to us as outsiders who struggle with being marginalized, either by society or by choosing to isolate ourselves. Whatever made him the mensch that he was, he unwittingly set the bar higher for those who treat neurological conditions.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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