Oliver Sacks, a neurologist who was widely known for his prolific writing about unusual human neurological conditions, died on Sunday. I recently read Sacks’s book A Leg to Stand On in which he details his personal experience re-habilitating his leg after a traumatic injury which required surgery to reattach severed muscle.
In the book, he describes his confusing, anxiety-filled, and sometimes humorous roller coaster ride in re-learning to use a leg in which neurological pathways to the brain have been disrupted.
“To be full of strength and vigor one moment and virtually helpless next … with all one’s powers and faculties one moment and without them the next — such a change, such suddenness, is difficult to comprehend, and the mind casts about for explanations,” he writes.
From the hiking accident and eight-hour journey dragging himself down a mountain to the hospital bed scenes of dispassionate medical professionals who dismiss his paralysis, his book left an impression on me personally and professionally.
Compassion is important in helping people gain or regain strength. Sacks explores in great detail what it felt like to be a patient at the mercy of the medical team responsible for his care. He writes, “”I found the abyss a horror, and recovery a wonder; and I have since had a deeper sense of the horror and wonder which lurk behind life and which are concealed, as it were, behind the usual surface of health.”
Sacks (quite generously) never criticizes his surgeon or post-surgery medical professionals despite their lack of empathy for or understanding of his neurological condition. No doubt, this experience helped shape his own compassionate, open-minded approach as a neurologist. Likewise, it reminded me of how important it is to put myself in my clients’ shoes – I must try to understand how the movement I’m asking them to do feels in their body.
Sacks also explores in fascinating detail the critical role the mind-body connection plays. While there was no physical reason that Sacks should not have been able to move his leg once surgeons reattached the muscle, his mind had lost the neurological pathway and he suffered what felt like total paralysis of his upper leg.
Each of us has endured the loss a pathway between our brain and a part of our body – whether it be from illness, injury, lack of use, or simply because we never learned how to turn the pathway on. Sacks’s account reminds all of us that physical health and wellness can only be attained with the help of our mind — an invaluable Pilates lesson, indeed.