We learnt earlier in the week of the death of the neurologist and prolific author Oliver Sacks. In February Sacks had announced that nine years after being diagnosed with an ocular melanoma, the tumour had spread, and that he now faced death.
There have been many heartfelt tributes to Sacks, who had a rare gift of writing about neurology in a way that appealed to millions. In studies on music, hallucinations, deafness, sleeping sickness, and migraine he mingled history, personal memoir and medical science to ponder the mysteries and marvels of the human brain.
I have only come to Sacks’ work relatively recently. No-one can spend much time on migraine without reading his seminal account, first published in 1970, and revised a number of times since. For Sacks, migraine was a disorder which struck particularly close to home. In 2008, in a blog for the New York Times Sacks talked of how he had experienced migraines, and particularly migraine auras, for most of his life. After experiencing his first aura at the age of 3 or 4, the young Oliver was reassured by his mother, a doctor, who shared her own experiences with her son. Years later, he went on to work in a migraine clinic, where he discovered more people who saw the same patterns that he did. Sacks mused that perhaps “the geometrical hallucinations of migraine allow us to experience in ourselves not only a universal of neural functioning, but a universal of nature itself”. Such a comment reflected his fascination with the cultural importance – in art, folklore and religion – of neurological quirks, and the creative potential of ‘defects, disorders and disease’.
Sacks’ writings were united by his empathy for patient selfhood, his eye for a good story, and his ability to take meaning and wonder from the real-world lives of the people he encountered during his practice, lives so often assumed to be marred by loss, deficit and inadequacy.
In the revised version of Migraine Sacks added an epilogue in which he wrote:
“For every patient with migraine there is A Long Road, and a Short Cut. The Short Cut is a diagnosis, a pill, a pat on the head. It takes all of five minutes. There is nothing wrong with this. The only thing is – it doesn’t usually work. Hence the necessity, for many patients, to take the Long Road. The Long Road is the road of understanding – an understanding of the heart no less than the mind.”
Sacks certainly received criticism – from other neurologists and disabled people – for his ‘popular’ approach, and for the way he transformed medicine into literature. But the centrality of Sacks’ patients to his writing (Migraine, alone, contains over 80 case histories), and his appreciation for their journeys, sticks with me. As I continue to make my own way through the history of what Sacks’ called migraine’s ‘strange and riddling landscapes’ it is patient stories that I, too, hope will be at the centre of my work.