Awakenings

Recommendation: I think it’s worth reading Sacks, I’m not sure this specific book is a must-read

Where to read: It’s a fairly confronting book, so maybe not public transport

Read with: A cup of tea in the sunshine, it’s the little things

In brief: Neuroscience written really very well.


I was inspired by Insomniac City to actually read some of Oliver Sacks’ work, walked into one of my favourite second-hand bookshops and picked this one at random.

Sacks more than lives up to his reputation as a first-class humanist;his writing glows with a deep compassion for his patients. Even where he was clearly unimpressed by patients or, more frequently, parents and family, he does his level best to empathise and for the most part withholds judgement.

The patients in Awakenings are parkinsonian, but its Parkinson’s of a particular type. To explain the nature of his patients’ illnesses, Sacks takes us back to the mid-1910s to the mid-1920s.We don’t know or think about it now, given World War I and the great influenza,but an epidemic of sleepy sickness (encephalitis lethargica)** was broke out globally, affecting millions of people. A third of those affected died and many of those who survived became severely parkinsonian. Many of those eventually required institutional care. In the 60s, a “miracle drug” came along with the potential to treat Parkinson’s disease and, in theory at least, encephalitis lethargica patients.

Structurally, Awakenings presents a series of case studies of patients at Mount Carmel*** in New York who received doses of L-Dopa. Some do well, with a vastly improved quality of life and facility of movement, and some do catastrophically, developing serious ticks, mania, hallucinations and an astounding range of other fairly confronting side-effects. The end of the book draws out lessons from the experiences, dives more into the science and gives Sacks a chance to get philosophical.

The prose is glorious – it’s beautifully written, erudite and crystal clear – but I would urge that you read the footnotes. I would also suggest doing some background reading/watch some YouTube documentaries or footage on Parkinson’s. Sacks’ description of the L-Dopa side effects is so harrowing that in places you very much question if the cure is worse than the disease.

Alternatively, Awakenings was adapted into a movie in the 1990s. I haven’t seen it but the trailer looks shocking. On the other hand, it stars the late great Robin Williams (among other familiar faces) so maybe it’s not that bad.

** As distinct from “sleeping sickness”

*** not Beth Abraham Hospital thank you very fucking much Wikipedia

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