Dr. Oliver Sacks, a world-renowned neurologist and author named “The Poet Laureate of Medicine” by The New York Times, left a singularly impactful legacy after his death in 2015. His life has been a source of inspiration for millions, myself very much included, giving hope that we might re-pave the path to human-centric medical care that focuses on treating not the disease but the entire person. As of April 9th, we can all follow the journey of this remarkable man in a documentary about his work and life premiering now on PBS!
Dr. Oliver Sacks left us with such eye-opening works as “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat,” “Musicophilia,” and “Awakenings,” where he enlightens us on a spectrum of different neurological conditions from amnesia to congenital blindness to patients emerging post-encephalitis lethargica.
He shares his wonder and fascination with these phenomena as expertly as any of the greatest storytellers of our time, but this isn’t what makes Sacks the most brilliant physician I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading—no. It’s just him. It’s not him as a doctor or him as a writer. It’s him as a person. His entire soul. It’s the fact that he accomplished everything that he did and never failed to put humanity, empathy, and genuine human kindness above all else. While he showed an unparalleled neurological prowess in the various ailments his patients endured, he NEVER failed to see that, underneath it all, we are all just people.
All this to say, my heart leapt when I saw that master documentarian Ric Burns, best known for his 1999 Emmy Nominated “New York: A Documentary Film,” recently released his documentary on Dr. Sacks’ incredible life.
In the documentary, Burns chronicles Sacks’ early life all the way up until just weeks after he’d received his fatal prognosis: his ocular tumor had metastasized to a terminal degree. Bill Hayes, the late partner of Sacks, describes how trusting he was of Burns throughout the processes, counting on him to capture the many different intricacies of his life, knowing full well he wouldn’t be alive to see the final piece himself. About the filming process, Hayes states, “The Oliver you see interviewed across the table from Ric or surrounded by his family and friends—all that sort of exhilaration, the brilliance, the self-deprecating humor, the eccentricities—that was so much [of] what Oliver was like.”
While the piece does cover some of the darkest moments in Sacks’ life, such as the struggles with his family, periods of what writer Lawrence Weschler referred to as “staggering bouts of pharmacological experimentation,” and coming to terms with his rapidly approaching final hours, the documentary, as did Sacks’ life itself, leaves us with a predominant message of the Light and Love he left in the world.
“I have loved and been loved.
I have been given much.
And I have given something in return.
I have read and traveled and thought and written.
I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.
Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal on this beautiful planet, and this, in itself, has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”
–Gratitude, by Dr. Oliver Wolf Sacks
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