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Lessons from Oliver Sacks

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The art of appreciating each patient’s uniqueness

An inspirational figure in my journey to becoming a neurologist died on 30 August 2015. I have been reflecting on what I have learned from the writings of Oliver Sacks over the course of my career. Many of these lessons apply to medicine more generally.

For me, the greatest lesson is that all patients are interesting. But more than that: Sacks was gifted at being able to transform patients’ everyday stories into fascinating stories with lessons for us all. Sacks was a humanistic doctor who ensured that patients held centre stage in his accounts of individual stories. In an age when doctors are sometimes more concerned with making an unusual diagnosis, Sacks was unique in conveying accounts of patients and their lives to a wider audience. In contrast to doctor-centric writers, Sacks was able to make a number of astute observations of his patients in a colourful and amusing way that will continue to be remembered down the generations.

Many of the patients I see do not have something “neurologically sinister” going on. However, many of us focus on what we consider our domain of practice and take some pleasure in diagnosing and treating conditions with which we feel comfortable. We want to address the “real” patients — the ones who have something seriously wrong and the ones for whom we can make a real difference.