For many of us the thought of suffering from any type of neurological disorder is enough to fill us with dread. Any loss of memory, mental facilities or awareness can be a terrifying prospect for ourselves, and heartbreaking to see in a loved one. Over many years of work, Dr Oliver Sacks has worked with patients suffering from a dizzying array of afflictions, from phantom limbs to Tourette’s, from visions and psychoses to autism and Parkinson’s. In this book from 1985 he tells the stories of a number of these patients in clear, human detail.
The book is split into four sections, looking at losses (for instance amnesia), excesses (e.g. Tourette’s), transports (visions, or hearing things) and the ‘simple’ (those with autism or Parkinson’s). By splitting the stories up into these categories he illustrates not only the breadth of neurological issues that afflict us as a race, but also the changing approach to and understanding of how to treat or at least identify these terrible ailments. Written as it was in the mid-80’s some of the terminology jars a little to the modern reader, but it’s clear that nothing is intended to be derogatory, Sacks simply uses the language of the time in which he wrote to portray as well as possible his patients and their stories.
Sacks’ skill as a neurologist seems to stem from his ability and desire to see each patient as a human being as opposed to a set of data, and this gives him tremendous empathy for his patients. It’s this empathy that allows him in his writing to not only detail the outward symptoms of their conditions but also explain to the reader the implications of these conditions. As terrifying as the physical descriptions are, it’s these implications and the insight into how much they affect the patients and their lives (and those of their families) that really have the most impact on the reader. Emotion is something that often doesn’t come into play much when reading scientific books, but here it’s the overriding theme of the book. The personalities of the patients come across so strongly that it’s genuinely heartbreaking, while also feeling that bit closer to home and more real for the clear impact on these peoples’ lives.
If one positive can be taken from this however it’s that the patients Dr Sacks works with, while at times suffering terribly, largely retain their core humanity. It’s a valuable reminder that even those with the most appalling conditions are still human beings, with feelings and emotions, and are able with the right care and love to be part of the world.