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Someone Else’s Eyes: My Debt to Oliver Sacks

“Language, that most human invention, can enable what, in principle, should not be possible. It can allow all of us, even the congenitally blind, to see with another person’s eyes.” 

–Dr. Oliver Sacks in The Mind’s Eye

I remember the first time I was introduced to Oliver Sacks. At the time, I was still well on my way to pursuing a career in music, set on the idea that music, and not science, would be my passion. My mother, a neuroscientist, could not resist when she stumbled across Oliver Sacks’ book, Musicophilia, in a bookstore. She snapped it up and wrapped it up in bright paper for me to open on Christmas morning.

I remember its orange cover with a picture of Dr. Sacks wearing a large pair of vintage headphones like those my dad kept in the office with his record player. As I was apt to do in those days before the busyness of medical school, I read the entire book in one sitting. I remember Sack’s compelling narrative of strange events of the brain on music. He told the medical stories of people who found peace in music and people who found it to be torture. Inside its pages were stories of people whose neurological conditions had unlocked the key to music in their brains, and people whose neurological conditions had prevented them from hearing it at all.

Musicophilia would be the first book I would read by Oliver Sacks, though certainly not the last, and it would be the first book I would read about medicine. I do not think my mom knew when she wrapped up that book back in 2007 that it might have been the spark that lit the kindling that had been piling up my whole life; it might have been the catalyst for the all-consuming fire that would be my education in medicine.

You see, I feel as though I owe a great deal to Dr. Sacks: first my choice to consider the field of medicine, and then my decision to pursue a degree in cognitive science as an undergraduate. In any department of cognitive scientists, everyone has heard of Oliver Sacks, but in the bedroom of my childhood home, Oliver Sacks was opening doors in my mind that had never been opened before.

After Dr. Sacks lost his battle with cancer this month, the media published a flurry of articles on his life, works and death. If you have picked up any of the media articles about him, you have certainly read about his devil-may-care early years riding motorcycles and dappling in recreational drugs. You have read about his work with Robin Williams, who passed away last year, on the film Awakenings. Maybe, you even made it to the bottom of those articles to read about his cancer.

I read them all, from NPR to the Los Angeles Times, to the blurbs written on CNN and Yahoo News. What I kept looking for in all those articles was more about the thread between Oliver Sacks and myself: writing. As a group, doctors seem to be a prolific bunch: Drs. Sacks, Gawande and Verghese are examples. So what is it that makes us leave the hospital and turn to the pages of our notebooks or the blank screens on our computers and furiously try to put into words what we have seen?

Perhaps it is, as Dr. Daniel Mason, both a physician and a writer, said: “While medicine creates material for writing, perhaps even more important is that it also creates a psychological and emotional need to write.”

I am a firm believer in this idea that medicine creates in us the psychological need to write, and so, over the last two years, I have coordinated a writing course for medical students. The program is a mentored reflective writing course that pairs third year students with physicians and encourages them to write narrative pieces about their experiences on the wards and then send them to their mentors to open a dialogue. Reflective writing in medicine has come into vogue in the last several years. The handful of papers on the subject have studied everything from using reflective writing to increase medical student’s empathy, to combating burnout, promoting reflective capacity and warding off cynicism. Many of the students I have had the chance to work with over the last two years have told me similar things: that working through the program with their mentors has helped them manage everything from the stress of realizing they will be doctors one day to losing patients for the first time. I know that, for me, writing about medicine has been a haven.

I started writing as a child, at first simply interested in contributing to (or rather emulating) the books I was so entranced with. I spent long hours in front of my notebooks dreaming up fantasy worlds of magic and sword fighting. It was not until I was in high school that I first began to use writing as a way of dealing with the world around me. I wrote then to understand the strange feelings of teenage years — being both an adult and a child. I wrote to understand the struggles of heartbreak or not belonging. I wrote to understand the struggles of bigger, scarier problems: mental illness, loss and substance use. In college, writing continued to be the way I processed the world around me, stumbling and falling frequently in an adult world I was not quite big enough to manage yet.

However, it was not until medical school that I found the resiliency that writing created for me. The first person I ever saw die was in the ER. I came home at midnight and wrote until the early hours of the morning when I was finally able to go to sleep. I have written thousands of pages since then about medicine and my place in it. Some of them were sad, but many of them were hopeful.

In all of it, writing has given me a way to not only handle the world around me, but also to understand it. I have come home angry with patients only to sit down, begin to write and realize how harshly I misjudged them. Writing allowed me to see things from another side, a softer side, someone else’s side other than my tired, stressed-out medical student side. Writing allowed me something that I would never be able to do in the scope of my limited human body: to see through someone else’s eyes, even if just for a moment.

In my great and somewhat obsessive search of all of the many obituaries for Dr. Sacks I came across a quote from an interview he did back in 2007 with NPR. “While I’ve always wanted to get people’s stories, I also like to know what’s going on in the brain, and how this wonderful two or three pounds of stuff in the head is able to underlie our imagination, underlie our soul, our individuality.”

So, Dr. Daniel Mason, in writing about why doctors write, seemed to identify it perfectly. Medicine creates in us the need to write. Not simply to process for ourselves, but to allow us to get a little closer to our own humanity and that of others.

Dr. Oliver Sacks showed us that again and again, writing first about his own early injuries and illnesses in A Leg to Stand On and Migraine and then later in the last days of his life writing and talking about his battle with cancer. His extraordinary storytelling taught us all a great deal about the art and science that is medicine and the art and science that is being human.

Beyond that, I seem to owe him a great personal debt–one I may never repay. Dr. Sacks gave me a great fascination for the inner workings of the human body (one I will carry forward with me in my career in surgery) and also taught me about the incredible importance of our imaginations, our souls and our individuality.

Thank you, Dr. Sacks. Somehow these words do not seem enough.

Katharine Caldwell Katharine Caldwell (3 Posts)

Contributing Writer Emeritus

University of New Mexico School of Medicine

Before attending medical school in her hometown of Albuquerque at the University of New Mexico, Katharine graduated with a degree in Cognitive Science from the UCSD, where she worked in research labs studying everything from alcohol and drug addiction to language learning in children. She now writes and makes videos chronicling her daily life in med school on her blog LadyKayMD. When not living her crazy fourth year medical student life running between clinic, research meetings, or studying, Katharine fills her time with rock climbing, writing, and baking for anyone who comes within 20 feet of her house.