Twenty years ago, before I was a nurse--before I had even started nursing school--I was at a used bookstore. I saw a title that intrigued me: "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat."
It was my introduction to Oliver Sacks. It was the beginning of a relationship, however one-sided, that got me into nursing, got me into neuroscience, and has kept me there for more than a decade.
Oliver Sacks was a walking contradiction: he was on the Asperger's spectrum, as he diagnosed himself, yet he was able to interact with his patients in such a way as to humanize even the most disabled person. He was obsessive, by his own admission; yet, he translated his obsessions into ordinary-person-friendly tales of his life as a doctor and the lives of his patients. He was incredibly learned, but never resorted to jargon when simple English would do. He was shy, but he put himself out to the public in a series of books about his practice and his life that showed us as much about ourselves as it did him.
The one true regret I have--after divorce, after cancer, after lost friends and relatives--is that I never got to sit down and listen to him talk. Just ramble, or expound on one of his favorite subjects, whether it was music or the periodic table or his days as a weightlifter on Muscle Beach. It wouldn't have mattered; I felt that close to him through reading his work.
It's important to remember that Dr. Sacks made most of his diagnoses and discoveries in the days before functional MRI or good CT scanning. Many times, the only four tools in his toolkit were clinical observation, x-ray, surgical biopsy, and a technique of pumping air into the brain in order to determine if a large mass were taking up space somewhere.
Of those four, his clinical observations were the most precise and flexible. Dr. Sacks taught me, through reading his books, to ask questions that went beyond the normal, prescribed neurological exam. He showed me what it was to sit down with a patient, to see how they ate, how they walked, how they interacted with the world in a functional way, rather than in a formalized exam.
Most of all, he taught me to see my patients as people. First and last, no matter the pathology in the brain, it is a person that we treat. That person never completely disappears; she's never totally lost to the disease or accident that might have claimed speech or reasoning.
For that, I am immensely grateful. Thank you, Dr. Sacks, for getting me into this insane, messy, endlessly fascinating and entertaining business of working with the human brain. Thank you for showing me the way that the brain informs and interacts with the mind. And thank you for translating your experiences into stories that anyone could understand, could follow, and be immersed in.
I owe you a lot. Your patients owe you a lot. The field of neurology owes you an immeasurable debt.
May it be indigo forever, from here on out.
Oliver Sacks, 1933-2015