We hope you are staying healthy and safe in these extremely difficult times. Reading, as we all are, about the spread of Covid-19 inevitably reminds us of the flu pandemic of 1917-18, which killed millions around the globe. Less well remembered is another pandemic, the “sleepy sickness” or encephalitis lethargica, which raged from 1917 to 1927, killing or incapacitating some five million people.
In Awakenings, Dr. Sacks writes of encountering a number of sleepy sickness survivors, so-called post-encephalitics, in the late 1960s, some forty years after their initial illness. In the Bronx hospital where he cared for these people, he discovered
“a new bond: that of commitment to the patients, the individuals under my care. Through them I would explore what it was like to be human, to stay human, in the face of unimaginable adversities and threats. … The intensity of feeling for these patients … bound us together as a community.”
He paid tribute to the many other healthcare providers who
“also dedicated themselves, spent countless hours in the hospital. All of us involved with the patients—nurses, social workers, therapists of every sort—were in constant communication: talking to each other in the passage, phoning each other on weekends and at night, constantly exchanging new experiences and ideas.”]
Above all, Sacks’s remarkable experiences with his patients taught him that each one was an individual, and that all would adapt to or surmount their illness in very individual ways.
As we are all tested to the limit by Covid-19, let us be grateful to the incredible healthcare workers on our frontlines, and let us cherish each other, and our individualities, all the more closely.
Ric Burns’s extraordinary documentary, Oliver Sacks: His Own Life, illuminates the life and work of Dr. Sacks, including the many years he spent with his Awakenings patients. Due to Covid-19, the theatrical release of the film has been delayed. You can find updates when available here.
If you’re looking for a quarantine read, Everything in Its Place is now available in paperback. This final volume of essays showcases Dr. Sacks’s broad range of interests–from his passion for ferns, swimming, and horsetails, to his final case histories exploring schizophrenia, dementia, and Alzheimer’s.