30 years of Awakenings

It’s 30 years since Oliver Sacks first pulled together the case notes of the 50 or so patients under his supervision at the Mount Carmel hospital in suburban New York and turned them into a best selling book. They also inspired both a play by Harold Pinter and a 1990 film starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro.

His patients were among the few survivors of the sleeping sickness epidemic of the 1920s and during the summer of 1969 he began to administer the latest ‘wonder drug’, L-DOPA, which in some cases had an almost miraculous ‘awakening’ effect. Patients who had not spoken or walked in decades became ‘normal’ once again, able to communicate with their families and live active lives. The positive effects were not without negative ones though (Sacks doesn’t use the term ‘side-effects’) and the constant weighing up of the benefits versus the downsides for Sacks as doctor is evident throughout the book.

Steve Silberman wrote a great profile in Wired where he gets the Sacks methodology just right:

“In telling the stories of his patients, Sacks transformed the genre of the clinical case report by turning it inside out. The goal of the traditional case history is to arrive at a diagnosis. For Sacks, the diagnosis is nearly beside the point — a preamble or an afterthought. Since many of the conditions chronicled by him are incurable, the force driving his tales is not the race for a remedy but the patient’s striving to maintain his or her identity in a world utterly changed by the disorder. In Sacks’ case histories, the hero is not the doctor, or even medicine itself. His heroes are the patients who learned to tap an innate capacity for growth and adaptation amid the chaos of their disordered minds.” (read the full profile here).

For those of you who haven’t read the book, I heartily recommend it, partly because it will teach you something about what happened but partly because it will make you think about the knife-edge that we all live upon. It’s also a wonderful masterclass in how to chronicle important events.

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