A great light has gone out this week, with Oliver Sacks MD dying in New York City. http://tinyurl.com/nnuzq6j
We naturopathic doctors have a lot to learn from Dr. Sacks the prolific neurologist, author, philosopher and original thinker in his chosen field.
I devoured my earliest Oliver Sacks book when I was nursing my first child some 25 years ago. I think I have read all of his books by now, and feel each is like a pearl on a string, slightly different from the previous one, but creating a beautiful, lustrous string. I was captured by his eloquent descriptions of patients, their lives, their illnesses and his unique experiences of and with them. Sacks brought medicine and patients to life for me and provided my first exposure to narrative medicine.
I appreciated the way he shared his own feelings and emotions vis a vis
his patients, the first I had read of such encounters but something I related to very much in my then, fledgling practice. In a brazen move, fueled by enthusiasm and a strongly affiliative nature, I sent Dr. Sacks a copy of a journal I was working on at the time; it was a neurology issue of the New England Journal of Homeopathy
. I wondered if I might quote a letter of his I’d read in the British Clinical Journal
in which he thanked the journal for its support of his book Awakenings
. The periodical’s posture was in contradistinction to the rest of conventional medicine, which had largely shunned his work. He wrote,
The failure of
Awakeningsto awaken physicians shows us something of the stupor into which the profession has fallen. In this century, by and large, we have seen medicine swell into an enormous mechanical and commercial enterprise; we have seen it turn more and more towards the notion of power, while turning ever further from the concept of care. Yet it is the fundamental business of caring for patients - recognizing their individual needs and problems, responding to the uniqueness of each situation- which constitutes the first and last duty to being a doctor.
This sentiment, so eloquently written was a hallmark of all of Dr. Sacks work. We can let that inspire our dear naturopathic profession to lean into its legacy and to remember the paramount importance of the doctor patient relationship. Dr. Sacks’ life and work underscore the essential need for us to teach our students and remind ourselves that the connection with our patients is primary; even as we embrace new approaches, better technology, all kinds of laboratory testing or whatever the next shiny new technique that sweeps through our profession may offer – that our love and concern for our patients is central and essential to successful & satisfying practice.
Taking time to understand our patients’ lives, working with people over years and decades, seeking to understand our patients’ pathologies in the context of their life experiences, allowing ourselves, as sometimes happens, to be engulfed and moved by our patient’s stories, these are all gifts we give to our patients, the greater medical community and of course, to ourselves.
Dr. Sacks modeled for me a particular posture that I adopted early on. It goes something like this: though I hope and believe I help many of those I treat, it is certain that they help me. They help me grow into a more compassionate and patient doctor, dr
ve my understanding of humanity, facilitate my ability to see and experience the breath and depth of suffering that individuals endure, and offer me insight into the inspirational resilience of the human body and spirit.
Thank you Dr. Sacks for all your contributions to medicine, to healing, and to the arts.