- Paperback: 464 pages
- Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (October 5, 1999)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0375704051
- ISBN-13: 978-0375704055
- Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.9 x 8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 106 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #19,536 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Awakenings Paperback – October 5, 1999
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It hardly seems fair that so many great doctors are also great writers. Perhaps it's qualities like sensitivity, craft, and dedication that keep physicians like Oliver Sacks in hospitals all day and at writing desks all night; if nothing else, these qualities shine in books like Awakenings. This powerful set of case histories rises above its pathological foundation to find new literary territory, a medical-spiritual synthesis equally stimulating for the mind and the soul. It's no wonder Hollywood producers chose to turn it into a feature film--anyone can see the universal human struggle against bondage and despair in these pages.
The sleeping-sickness epidemic of 1918 caused hundreds of survivors to slip into a bizarre rigid paralysis with similarities to advanced Parkinson's disease. These patients, only occasionally able to communicate or move, were nearly all institutionalized for life, their ranks increasing every now and then with similarly afflicted men and women. Sacks came to work at a long-term care facility shortly before the first exciting results with L-dopa and Parkinson's in the late 1960s; his patients soon embarked on dramatic, difficult recoveries from up to 50 years of torpor. He documents their spiritual and medical obstacles with great care to portray their individual personalities, long suppressed but finally released. Though many great doctors are also great writers, few can compare with Oliver Sacks for expressing the relation of medicine to the human spirit. --Rob Lightner
"[Sacks] opens to the reader doors of perception generally passed through only by those at the far borders of human experience".
-- The Boston Globe
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The book is an exhaustive look at a number of patients who had encephalitis lethargica, a flu-like disease which had a global appearance in the early 20th c., then seemed to disappeared into the ether. Patients who had it in their early lives seemed to go into a trance-like (or as Sacks sometimes called it, Parkinsonian) state and became burdens on their families. Oliver Sacks' interaction with them was typically after many years had passed, and they had been committed to the hospital where he worked. The use of L-Dopa was just beginning as a treatment for this kind of disorder, and Dr. Sacks began to experiment with it on these patients. As a result, but on a very individualistic basis, they would "awaken" from their trance, and be able to function once again as capable, intelligent and independent, even joyful, human beings. This would last for awhile, before the drug would either stop working, or have some kind of deleterious effect on the patients, all of which Dr. Sacks records in the book.
One of the fascinating aspects of the story is how Sacks describes the patients' feelings about their life experience. Some are horrified that they went to sleep at, say, age ten, and woke up much older. Others are grateful they had a chance to be alive again. Some have memory of being in the vegetative state, others don't. The way their families interact with them upon their awakening is also informative and varied; some are ecstatic, others threatened, still others downright angry.
When the book came out, the medical community shunned it, and it's easy to see why. Oliver Sacks (who died this year) was very vocal about the way he thought doctors came up short when dealing with patients, aka human beings. He railed against them for treating people separately from their disease, and treating a disease, e.g. cancer, like it was the same for every patient. His revolutionary thought was that individuals and their diseases have a symbiotic relationship, and to treat the disease, one must treat the individual. "Awakenings" is a classic example of how to do this, and an exhilarating, if also frightening, look into the human psyche.
This is fascinating stuff!
I am not nor was I ever a medical student nor have I ever worked in the medical field. But I am so thankful that I read this book & must say, even at the beginning of my thoughts & comments, that I highly recommend this work of Sacks. The man has a brilliant mind, very worthy of our appreciation.
I could not have read this book, had I not read ALL of the preliminary notes which take the reader well into the book and give one such as myself a very good background before going into the case studies of these special patients.
I found the book to be so much better than the movie, which I thought wonderful & which left me speechless!
The "sleepy sickness" that masks itself as Parkisonism would be difficult to garner understanding from without those previously mentioned notes. Oliver Sacks is a gifted writer. His prose is often times overly medical but again, please read the notes before beginning the case studies. The beauty of his words in regards to how medicine should be practiced and how the overly technical aspects of medicine are denying the original feeling & healing that is the true basic of the medical practice have made this book a must read for all those going into the medical field. I could go on and on but will just say: Please read this book if you have any interest in an extraordinary disease and the extraordinary processes which both the patients, other doctors, nurses & medical personnel go through long with Dr. Sacks.
From Wikipedia regarding the "sleepy sickness":
"Encephalitis lethargica or von Economo disease is an atypical form of encephalitis. Also known as "sleepy sickness" (distinct from tsetse fly-transmitted sleeping sickness), it was first described in 1917 by the neurologist Constantin von Economo and the pathologist Jean-René Cruchet. The disease attacks the brain, leaving some victims in a statue-like condition, speechless and motionless. Between 1915 and 1926, an epidemic of encephalitis lethargica spread around the world. Nearly five million people were affected, a third of whom died in the acute stages. Many of those who survived never returned to their pre-existing "aliveness". "They would be conscious and aware - yet not fully awake; they would sit motionless and speechless all day in their chairs, totally lacking energy, impetus, initiative, motive, appetite, affect or desire; they registered what went on about them without active attention, and with profound indifference. They neither conveyed nor felt the feeling of life; they were as insubstantial as ghosts, and as passive as zombies." No recurrence of the epidemic has since been reported, though isolated cases continue to occur."