A Scientist’s Personal Eulogy for Oliver Sacks

Regretfully, I never met Oliver Sacks, but I still feel like I knew him, like so many others do, because he has had such a deep impact on my life on multiple occasions. Many famous people, and those who knew him best, will properly eulogize Dr. Sacks. This, on the other hand, is a personal eulogy, my “Oliver Sacks stories,” and the only effort I can make to memorialize this truly great man. I refuse to see this as an act of vanity because I suspect that much of what I say will ring true for millions of others.

At each important turn in my life, there was Oliver Sacks. I was first introduced to his work when I was 12 years old and saw the movie Awakenings, based on his memoir of the same name. As I watched the movie over and over again, I found myself deeply drawn to the character of Dr. Malcolm Sayer and decided that I wanted to be a doctor, too. It was perfect timing because my 8th grade science class spent the year studying the human body.

AWAKENINGS, Robin Williams (lab coat), Tobert De Niro (plaid shirt), Mary Alice (nurse), Ruth Nelson (green suit), Julie Kavner (nurse), 1990, (c) Columbia

AWAKENINGS, Robin Williams (lab coat), Tobert De Niro (plaid shirt), Mary Alice (nurse), Ruth Nelson (green suit), Julie Kavner (nurse), 1990, (c) Columbia

Why Malcom Sayer? I had already met plenty of doctors, read books and seen movies about them, and knew that it was a highly respected profession that all “smart kids” should consider. Malcom Sayer was different because he saw his patients as a mystery, a puzzle to be solved. He didn’t simply treat symptoms or match the confirmed diagnosis with the accepted treatment. He asked the bigger question, “What is not working here?” and the even more important one, “How can we fix it?” Dr. Sayer, like Dr. Sacks, thought like a scientist because he was a scientist, a point subtly made during his awkward interview as the movie opens. Awakenings Because of this, we get the impression that Dr. Sayer doesn’t quite belong in the hospital and probably shouldn’t be treating patients. As the movie progresses, all of the characters seem to reach that same conclusion as well. That is, all the characters except the patients whose lives he has transformed. And why does Dr. Sayer not quite fit in? Because he is never satisfied simply treating patients. Dr. Sayer is a frustrated scientist working within a system where innovation is not valued and creative thinking is not welcomed. Dr. Sayer is Dr. Sacks. sacks-awakenings4 This feeling of not quite fitting in stuck with me as I completed the entrance requirements for medical school. I slogged through my courses, tackled the MCAT, and survived the interviews. I had my acceptance in hand but all I could think about was the morose Dr. Sayer. Why was he so sullen? Robin Williams Awakenings It was at that time that one of my dearest friends gave me another book written by Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, a book filled with neurology cases as strange as the titular one. Paradoxically, this extraordinary book made me realize that I didn’t want to be a doctor at all. I didn’t want to be Dr. Sayer; I wanted to be Dr. Sacks. I wanted to chase clues, do experiments, and ask questions. I didn’t want to treat people; I wanted to study life.

So that’s what I did. I became a scientist, a decision I haven’t regretted for even a moment and for which I have Oliver Sacks to thank. The latest phase of my career has seen an increasing emphasis on writing. As I have come to fancy myself a science writer, it was Oliver Sacks to whom I looked for inspiration and motivation. After all, the list of those who can realistically be called his colleagues is short.

In the past few years, I have read and re-read his books and eagerly devoured his articles in The New Yorker. Like Lewis Thomas before him, he gives the impression of a medicine man out of time. His words often feel like they come from anyone but a physician. A playwright, a monk, a sage, perhaps a romantic poet from the early modern period, but not a physician. And yet, he was a physician, above all else. He was a physician in the truest and purest sense. If only they were all like him. If only all of us were like him. music Just this year, Dr. Sacks did it to me again. I heard in a Radiolab podcast that he’d written an autobiography, On the Move: A Life. In it, Dr. Sacks chose to give his fans a parting gift: a look into the pain and beauty of his private life. images One part of his story touched me deeply. Discovering that he was gay at an early age, he was grotesquely rebuked by his mother and painfully rejected by two would-be lovers. In response, he turned inward and chose to forgo intimacy for virtually his entire adult life.

As he discusses these episodes, he appears at once detached from them and yet still experiencing them. He spent many decades in self-imposed celibacy, instead throwing himself tirelessly into his remarkable career, a jealous lover if there ever was one.

In 2008, Dr. Sacks finally allowed himself to fall in love again with fellow writer Billy Hayes. This was barely a year after I began a relationship with my now-husband. What a cruel difference that my husband and I are hoping to see 50 or 60 years together, while Billy got to enjoy a mere seven years before cancer took Dr. Sacks from him. And from us. oliver-sacks-and-billy-hayes As I read the words of his autobiography, I wondered with teary eyes if my personal life would have been as painful as his had been, had I been born in his era instead of my own. His mother reviled him for his private admission; mine stood with me as I got married in Central Park. What a stinging injustice.

Because Dr. Sacks was not a religious man, I will not disrespect his memory with the usual platitudes of him being in a better place, looking down on us, and all of that. Nevertheless, the statement that Oliver Sacks “will always be with us” is a metaphysical certainty beyond any question. He poured his heart, his soul, his self into his writing to entertain, delight, and challenge us. In that sense, we really do have him here with us.

As I aimlessly leaf through his books, I am grief-stricken for a man that I never met but mostly definitely knew. Because he was so generous with his words, his knowledge, and his heart, I know that I can find him right where he has always been: in The Mind’s Eye.

Goodbye, Dr. Sacks. I shudder to think how my life would have turned out without you in it.

-Nathan H. Lents

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