Awakenings, Oliver Sacks

Once when I was working in the garden, a bee plummeted out of the blue and dove into the heart of a hollyhock and stayed in there a long time, maintaining a little motion and humming, gorging. Eventually, he crawled out, sat a spell, and lifted off heavily. He literally couldn’t fly straight. After a couple of lazy loops and bemused U-turns he disappeared over the hedge.

That’s a fair description of what can happen to readers of Oliver Sacks’ Awakenings, a book about the catatonic, post-encephalitic patients Dr. Sacks treated at Mt. Carmel hospital when he went there as a young neurologist in 1966. We readers dive in because both author and book are so widely acclaimed (ten other well-received books and countless articles and lectures from Sacks; a movie and various stage plays from the book.)

Like the bee, we find lots to feed on: several prefaces and forewords as the book has gone through different editions. A twenty-five-page prologue. And then the heart: The compelling stories of twenty patients who awoke from their long sleep (brought on by encephalitis) after being administered L-Dopa (one of the very early psychotropic meds). In this section, there are surely as many lines of footnotes as of body. And they aren’t necessarily boring footnotes that the reader wants to skip.

Then there is a forty-page riff, in a section called Perspectives, on how illness fits into Western culture, history, philosophy, and literature. And a thirty-five-page epilogue to the 1982 edition and a brief postscript to the 1990 edition. Plus eighty pages of appendices (an interesting series of essays/papers that has an “Oh, and everything else interesting on the subject . . .” feel to it). Followed by a glossary (useful for medical terms), a bibliography, and an index.

In the middle of the book is an inset of haunting photographs of Mt. Carmel patients caught in catatonic sleep and their poignant awakenings. There are also clips from the media: Sleepy Sickness Spreading: Fatal Cases: Hunt for Elusive Germ: 20,000 Cases Last Year: Epidemic Worst In Britain and Italy: Record Death Toll.

That’s why the reader comes out sated. A little over-fed. Stunned. Sacks was (he died this year) a brilliant neurologist and a deeply compassionate physician. He had the imagination and audacity to experiment with new chemistry and awaken catatonic patients; he had the sorrow of watching them eventually regress and suffer and die.

Perhaps one reason Sacks has been so embraced as a person, physician, and writer is that he felt the humanity of illness. In the section called Perspectives, he writes “Diseases have a character of their own, but they also partake of our character; we have a character of our own, but we also partake of the world’s character: character is monadic or microcosmic, worlds within worlds within worlds, worlds which express worlds. The disease-the man-the world go together and cannot be considered separately as things-in-themselves.”

In our current specialized, assembly line, code-for-payment medical industrial complex, who can help but feel nostalgia for that humanity?  

Sharelle Moranville


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