The dénouement that was inevitable came to pass. I woke up yesterday to the sorrowful news that Professor Sacks, the neurologist and author extraordinaire, had passed away at the age of 82. Of the two obituaries in two leading dailies that I read one after the other, the NY Times Obit seemed more of a commemoration of his life’s outstanding work, whereas the Guardian Obit seemed (to me) a celebration of his amazing life, but both were moving in their descriptions of this ex-biker/weightlifter polymath physician/author I have long admired. My time at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in The Bronx, NY, overlapped the last five years of his presence there. I met him from afar a couple of times in the hallways, but never had the courage to approach him and talk. I wish I had. Journalist and author Steve Silberman, who has for years had close contact with Professor Sacks, expressed eloquently on Twitter what I have been feeling:
— Steve Silberman (@stevesilberman) August 31, 2015
The overarching theme in his writings was humanity. He considered the individuality of the patient to be the single most important factor in his practice of medicine; this allowed him to connect with his patients at a deep level, enhanced by his abiding empathy for the human being and innate perception of the mysteries of the brain and the human mind. As the Guardian obituary said:
“… Sacks’s natural sympathy for people with neurological disorders or impairments, so powerfully felt and expressed, permeates his writings. It helps him to describe, with deep interest and insight, the “accommodations” by which people learn to get along with – sometimes even benefit from – their illnesses.”
And yet, during his lifetime, Professor Sacks was harshly criticized for running a ‘neurological freak show’, and benefiting from his patients’ illnesses by one noted disability activist. The innumerable people whose lives he graced, his patients as well as his readers, do not agree with this assessment. In his writings, he never minimized or belittled; he connected with each individual patient in that old-school physician way, and his case studies of his patients’ daily lives were elegant and compelling narratives of their humanity in all its dimensions and vicissitudes.
On the somber day of his passing, I take time to remind myself of the lessons I carry from his life and work: the paramount importance of empathy, compassion, kindness and fellow-feeling, with which to approach any situation in life requiring human interactions, and the fact that perspectives, perceptions and contexts vary from situation to situation. For the causes we passionately espouse, we are often given to harsh denouncements when we perceive a difference of opinion. I must remember to reserve the indignation and rebuke for instances of actual harm, the proper understanding of which calls for patience and nuance – for all of us are merely trying to understand the world around us in our own ways.
In the last months of his life following the revelation of his cancer, Professor Sacks wrote in NY Times with his usual candor a touching article about his loss of faith, how his mother called him an ‘abomination’ when at 18, he came out as gay, and how it took more than six decades, but his Orthodox Jewish family eventually embraced him and his sexuality with warmness. Therein, he wrote about what it meant to him by “living a good and worthwhile life” – achieving a sense of peace within oneself, he wrote.
“And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. 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.”
Rest in peace, Professor Sacks. We shall always cherish you in our hearts and minds, and take joy in what you have given us.
The life-partner of Professor Sacks, the author/photographer Bill Hayes, has posted some wonderful photos of Oliver Sacks at his website, well worth visiting.