A Teacher of Life — Oliver Sacks

I wonder how many healthcare professionals had Oliver Sacks as part of their education through his books, wisdom, or research. He shaped me as an occupational therapy student back in the early 90’s. I loved and respected his ability to listen and validate another’s perception however odd or unusual it might have been to others, even his colleagues. He understood that a person’s perception was real to him/her, wasn’t afraid to explore it, and was open-minded about the etiology of a person’s condition. I suppose I felt particularly sad when I learned of his death this morning. It happened at a time when it seemed a lot of people have lost their ability to listen, respect, or entertain other ways of being in the world.

The news has affected my mental health as of late. Black women were asked to leave a train because they laughed too loud. Someone thought it was appropriate to film a young couple in the midst of an argument and then broadcast it for the world to see. A presidential hopeful seemed to think it was acceptable to insult, mock, and ridicule people of Latin or Asian descent. Men felt the need to threaten and belittle women via their “poetry.” A disturbed man filmed himself pointing a gun at a woman before he killed her. He then shared those images on social media and some news outlets thought it was okay to put them on their homepage or the front page of a newspaper. Refugees, not migrants, sought a safe place to live. Countless blacks have been killed. The United States does not have adequate gun control.

With news that Oliver Sacks died, in some spiritual way I wanted to connect with him. Radiolab happened to have interviewed him earlier this year so I clicked on the link. I pressed the Play button to listen to what I thought was an entire Oliver Sacks interview. Turned out there were two different ones. The thoughtful folks at Radiolab warned listeners that they might be affected by the first interview. It was about a woman who had open-heart surgery, an engineer who was initially interested in the science of her medical journey and rehabilitation. By the time her interview ended I was in tears; her story hit too close to home. For those who know me well, my granddaughter had her third and final open-heart surgery on August 13, 2014. She was four years old at the time. The one year anniversary of that surgery stirred so many emotions.

Then I listened to the Oliver Sacks interview. It was strange to hear his voice knowing he died earlier today. Here was a man who taught us about the brain, how it worked, its beauty, power, nuances, and intricacies. He taught us to listen, respect, and accept others for who they were in sickness and in health. The combination of Radiolab’s first interview, a string of bad news and events in the world, and the grief roused from previous losses that death likes to shake in each of us made me feel emotionally spent by the end of the podcast. Dr. Sacks wasn’t always accepted by those who were close to him and that made me incredibly sad. Sad, too, that the world had lost a compassionate person, advocate, and teacher when we need more people like him, especially now. He reminded me about life and the importance of loving and respecting others. Perhaps his death tipped me over the edge and gave me permission to cry hard. Thank you, Dr. Sacks, for being a great teacher of the brain and heart. May you rest in peace.

The Radiolab interview with Oliver Sacks can be accessed here starting at 31:37.

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