Oliver Sacks: A Tribute

Bret S. Stetka, MD


April 01, 2015

In a February 15, 2015, op-ed in the New York Times, renowned neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks announced that he has terminal cancer. "At 81, I still swim a mile a day. But my luck has run out..." he revealed, before penning an incredibly thoughtful, moving essay on facing mortality—on processing one's place and legacy in the world, and appreciating what time remains. "There is no time for anything inessential," Dr Sacks wrote, "I shall no longer look at 'NewsHour' every night."

As a tribute to Dr Sacks, Medscape has collected some thoughts from physicians, physician authors, and Dr Sacks' colleagues on his legacy and contributions to medicine and literature.

Sandeep Jauhar, MD, PhD, Director, Heart Failure Program, Long Island Jewish Medical Center; author of Doctored: The Disillusionment of an American Physician (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)

When I was in graduate school at Berkeley, well before I decided to go to medical school, I once made a list of people I admired for a career interests test. The list included Einstein, Freud, Larry Bird, my brother Rajiv— "a little"—Orson Welles, and Oliver Sacks. Sacks' writings have had a profound effect on me and other physicians (and physician writers).

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, An Anthropologist on Mars—these are books I remember so vividly, for their foreignness, and yet their worlds seemed so real because of that foreignness. Sacks wrote about his neurologically quirky characters with so much sincerity and humanity that he made you want to go anywhere with him, both in the literary sense but also in a personal sense. He seemed to be such a good, caring doctor and human being, the kind of person you'd want as a best friend. I didn't go to medical school to become a writer, but Oliver Sacks showed me that both pursuits were possible and could nourish each other. In my book, he (and perhaps Abraham Verghese) are the best physician writers we have.

Jeffrey Lieberman, MD, Chair of Psychiatry, Columbia University Medical Center; Psychiatrist in Chief, New York-Presbyterian Hospital; immediate past president of the American Psychiatric Association; author of Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry (Little, Brown, 2015)

I first encountered Oliver Sacks in 1979, when I began working at the Bronx Psychiatric Center. I sent a patient of mine to the neurology clinic for evaluation and received a report that immediately grabbed my attention.

Handwritten in meticulously styled script and sparkling prose was a compelling narrative of the patient's history and elucidation of his diagnosis. Rather than the dry, clinically formulaic medical consults that I was used to getting (and guilty of myself), this consult read like a short story.

Wondering who had composed this extraordinary missive, I visited the clinic and introduced myself to Oliver. He was a gnome-like little man, short and stout in stature with bald head and full beard, a twinkle in his eye and an unusual cadence in his voice, with a lilting British accent. From that brief interaction, it was apparent to me that Oliver was a uniquely gifted person with amazing observational and expressive talents. I was struck by the incongruity of this rarefied talent squirreled away in a dingy clinic of a state mental institution.

Despite these modest beginnings, I was not surprised when, years later, he became a best-selling author. Our careers came full circle in 2007, when he joined the faculty at Columbia University as an Arts and Sciences Scholar; he quickly became a favorite with students and residents. However, Oliver suffered from hearing, ophthalmologic, and orthopedic problems, which began to limit the scope of his activities. Through it all, he continued to be intellectually and physically vital, and continued his writing.

From that first consult that I received to the recent New York Times article. Oliver has remained true to his medical muse.

Carolyn Robinowitz, MD, Former President, American Psychiatric Association; Former Dean, Georgetown University

Live as though you will die tomorrow; learn as if you will live forever.

—Attributed to Gandhi

When I was president of the APA, I chose Dr Sacks to lead the William C. Menninger Memorial Convocation Lecture at the APA Annual Meeting in May of 2008. Historically, this lecture addresses scientific issues in a manner accessible to both a professional academic audience as well as a broader public. As always, Oliver Sacks was informative as well as accessible, thought-provoking, and inspirational.

In his article "My Own Life," Dr Sacks once again combines instruction with inspiration, this time with the most important topic: his own life and impending death.

Dr Sacks has captivated and informed the lay public as well as scientific communities with his scholarly yet accessible writing, leading many young people to study neuroscience and the complex interactions of biology and behavior. Now, his frank and thoughtful essay prompts all of us to scrutinize our own lives—our personal and professional relationships, values, and priorities.

For most of us, thoughts of our death are accompanied by denial and delay; yet it is in thinking about death that we think most strongly about life—what is most meaningful to us, how we want to live, and what will be our legacy to our dear ones and our communities. Dr Sacks' candid and courageous presentation reminds us of his brilliance and insight and helps us address, in our own ways, the opportunities as well as limits of our lives.


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