Sunday, 11 April 2010

"A Leg to Stand On" by Oliver Sacks

I finally read "A Leg to Stand On" the other day, and have been thinking about it off and on.  I enjoy Dr. Sacks' writing, from short case studies like "An Anthropologist on Mars" and "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat", to autobiography like "Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Childhood".  He has an easy, engaging mix of science and storytelling that just works, and he has a zeal for his topics that's infectious.

"A Leg to Stand On" is a case study and autobiography in one.  It describes Sacks' experience recovering from a serious injury to his leg.  In the 1970s (when his injury occurred), it was more common for patients to experience protracted convalescences, and to have their injured limbs completely immobilized in heavy casts.  For many patients, this resulted in an alienation for the casted body part, and it's this sense of alienation from a part of oneself that's the focus here.  This sense of alienation was not well understood at the time, and generations of patients were unable to convey their experience in a way that brought understanding to their doctors, caregivers, friends and family.  Patients were physically injured, their injuries were addressed surgically, and over time they were physically better.  The physical wellness was the desired outcome.  That they were baffled and terrified during their convalescence was beside the point.

Sacks is an articulate man who is blessed with an eye for detail and a good memory.  He emerged from his convalescence with the desire to document it for the outside world (doctors and laymen alike), and his years of experience documenting similar experiences with his patients put him in a unique position to tell the story and explain the science behind it.  As with all of his case studies, it's the human experiences that shine through amidst the notes on neuroscience (and its history).

An engaging, insightful, and very human story that's well worth reading.

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