Thursday, May 17, 2018

Book 129: A Leg To Stand On

"And in that instant, I no longer knew it. In that instant, that very first encounter, I knew not my leg. It was utterly strange, not-mine, unfamiliar. I gazed upon it with absolute non-recognition...The more I gazed at that cylinder of chalk, the more alien and incomprehensible it appeared to me. It seemed to bear no relation whatever to me. It was absolutely not-me—and yet, impossibly it was attached to me—and even more impossibly, 'continuous' with me." 

Dates read: February 26-March 2, 2017

Rating: 7/10

When I was in college, I quite often used a shortcut to get back to my apartment after a night at the bars. It was a short, dark path than ran next to a parking garage. I almost never saw anyone back there. A few times I saw some homeless people, but no one ever tried to stop me or talk to me. Thinking back on it, it sounds like the beginning of a horror film: a young, drunk, small college student walks down a secluded path into the dark. But it never occurred to me to be afraid. And, obviously, nothing ever happened.

We often feel impervious to danger until something happens to frighten us. In his memoir A Leg To Stand On, Oliver Sacks recalls a time in his life that began with a hike on a solo trip to Norway. Sacks was an adult man who frequently traveled and was in excellent physical condition, so the idea of going for a hike alone didn't phase him in the least. It wasn't until a chance encounter with a bull during the hike lead to a fall that drastically injured one of his legs that he realized how very precarious his situation was. The leg was incapable of bearing any weight. No one knew where he was. It would get dangerously cold at night, and the path was little-traveled enough that he very well might not be found until it was too late. Somehow, miraculously, he managed to get himself back down the hill where he was discovered by locals. But that was just the beginning of his tale.

After surgery to repair the grave damage to his leg, he woke up to feel as though that leg wasn't really his. It was like the opposite of phantom limb syndrome: instead of feeling as though a limb that had been amputated was still there, Sacks felt like his existing limb wasn't a part of his body. His recovery, both from the underlying injury and the neurological symptoms, make him, for the first time since he'd become a doctor, a patient. He finds himself feeling meek and helpless, and even though his situation wasn't contagious, he's treated as though his suffering might be.

Eventually, he did recover, and continued to be physically active and practice neurology and write books. But it's not hard to imagine that this experience of being a patient helped inform the compassion in his work. Writing case studies is a delicate balance: there can be an exploitative edge to it, the feeling that the writer is mining suffering for their own pecuniary gain. But for my money, Sacks' works never come off that way. The things that come across clearly are his endless curiosity for how the brain works, how symptoms can be treated, and a respect for the fundamental humanity of the people he worked with and tried to help. Which is why I've been such a big fan of his books, and why I'm a little sad each time I finish one because I know it means there's one more that I'll never again get to experience for the first time. I found this one in particular a fascinating medical memoir, and a moving meditation on the experience of being a patient. I would definitely recommend it, especially for anyone who works in the medical field.

Tell me, blog friends...have you ever realized how unsafe something you did unthinkingly was?

One year ago, I was reading: If We Were Villains

Two years ago, I was reading: We Need To Talk About Kevin

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