A View On Oliver Sacks, From A Longtime Friend And Colleague
ARUN RATH, HOST:
Today, we celebrate the extraordinary life and career of Dr. Oliver Sacks. The renowned neuroscientist and author died early this morning in New York City. He was 82. His death was not a surprise. Dr. Sacks had been very open about his cancer diagnosis and wrote eloquent, personal reflections on nearing the end of his life. He talked about his cancer in 2010 on WHYY's Fresh Air.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DR. OLIVER SACKS: Although I'm sorry this happened to me and is happening to me, I feel I might as well use it and investigate it and write about it and just speak of myself as I would speak of one of my patients.
RATH: Dr. Orrin Devinsky was a longtime friend and colleague of Oliver Sacks. Dr. Devinsky, thank you so much for joining us. And first, let me say I'm so sorry for your loss.
DR. ORRIN DEVINSKY: Thank you. It is a big loss for many of us.
RATH: Everyone today will remember Dr. Sacks's contributions to neuroscience and to science writing. But you knew him on a personal and professional level. What stands out the most for you?
DEVINSKY: He was a remarkably sensitive, brilliant, quirky and fun person - just all of those features and just an incredibly special human being and soul.
RATH: And we're in a time now where doctors often don't spend as much time with patients as they used to, but he really connected on a human level with people.
DEVINSKY: I think he lived in another world from modern medicine. And I think it was a better world. He did spend time. If he needed two and a half or three hours with a new patient visit, he spent two and a half or three hours. If he felt that seeing the person in their own world, in their home, in their workplace would add to his understanding of the case, he would do that. And he also didn't live with the barriers that many of us have - that the doctor is on one side and the patient's on the other side of some imaginary fence. For Dr. Sacks, there really was no break down. He understood he is a patient. He would be a patient, and that for any patient he saw that they were no less human or different than he was.
RATH: It kind of leads into how he was able to deal with his own illness towards the end of his life.
DEVINSKY: I think through his op-ed pieces in The New York Times where he disclosed his diagnosis and how he was going to approach the final months of his life, he did it with an honesty and openness and sensitivity that I think awed the world. And he really lived what he wrote.
RATH: There's also great humor about him that I think so many of us found very admirable as well. And I understand you had an interesting experience of his humor the first time you met.
DEVINSKY: When I first met him in New York City, we had dinner together and then afterwards wandered apart from the rest of the group and were around the West Village. And we were talking about Tourette's syndrome, and he began to have tics. And I was thinking to myself, my goodness I never realized that Oliver Sacks, who I'd read his books, has Tourette's himself. And it was only a few weeks later, after getting to know him a bit better, I realized he was just doing some imitations and, you know, I was quite thrown off at that.
RATH: And as a scientist, what will he be most remembered for do you think?
DEVINSKY: I think he'll be remembered for bringing back parts of traditional medicine and science that many of us in the modern world have really not fully appreciated the value. And one thing, for example, is the case report. Most of the great discoveries in neurology from 1860 to 1970 were the result of individual cases that were meticulously studied. And that was his model of how to do patient care. Unlike previous physicians, he also added the human element, which made him a totally unique clinician and scientist. But I think in today's world, too many physicians, too many scientists, they want to hear about double-blind randomized trials. They want to hear about large series. And I think studying individual cases with great care will be one of his many legacies for science and medicine.
RATH: Dr. Orrin Devinsky, professor of neurology at NYU Langone School of Medicine. Dr. Devinsky, thank you so much.
DEVINSKY: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.