The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a HatThis weekend I picked up and devoured Dr. Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat—a fascinating collection of clinical tales of neurological aberrations accompanied by philosophical and social observations regarding the people affected by these aberrations.

One of the first things that hit me as I read these tales was remorse over my inadequate caregiving of Dad in the past three years. I mean, the very first case in the book reminded me very much of Dad—his inability to tell the difference between his foot and his shoe; to interpret a picture or the furniture layout of any room; to distinguish between his body and a chair across the room. But whereas Dr. Sacks’ response to these aberrations was fascination, interest, and kindness, mine was a struggle against exasperation, irritability, and impatience.

Why couldn’t I marvel at (instead shake my head at) Dad’s description of his back pain as an imaginary horizontal tube about a foot in front of his abdomen? Why did I only nod in shame when doctors asked, “Is your father’s mentation… always… this… shot?” instead of pushing the observation beyond the superficial to the interesting? If I’d only read this book or studied neurology before taking care of Dad! I feel like a parent looking back on her inadequate parenting skills and feeling remorse over the damage it may have caused.

Dr. Sacks laments the tendency of neurology to focus on “deficits,” leaving the soul out of the doctor’s concern. This echoed my own feelings expressed in the post Regarding Disabilities and Questionnaires. We are so concerned in medicine and social services to define what’s wrong with the patient that we miss seeing the desperate starvation in front of our eyes: the individual’s need for affirmation—for having someone notice what’s right with them. Thus, the simplest of all medicines or disability benefits is left completely out of the picture in professional delineation of care: making use of what’s left of the damaged self to make positive human connections.

From his chapter, “The President’s Speech,” I learned one way to use what’s left of Mom’s mind to connect more effectively with her. Like the patients in the aphasiac ward, Mom too has lost all language while retaining extraordinary function in the area of intonation, body language, inflection, and facial expression. I’ve always sensed that she could “read our body language.” Dr. Sacks’ confirmation of this ability has made me more aware of how I use those meta-verbal cues in communicating with Mom. The smile I get in response is more valuable than any drug-induced ability to tell what date it is.

One of the most fascinating passages in Dr. Sack’s book tells of a man with Tourett’s who, when given Haldol in the smallest of doses, ceased to exhibit the excesses of Tourett’s and became disastrously dulled—both physically and mentally—causing him as much distress as had his Tourett’s dysfunction. It took three months of counseling and “preparation for healing” before the man was again willing to try a tiny dose of Haldol. As Dr. Sacks put it, “The effects of Haldol here were miraculous—but only became so when a miracle was allowed.” Scandalous! Was Dr. Sacks milking the placebo effect for all its worth? I’ve always wondered why doctors don’t deliberately incorporate the placebo effect into the real medication to multiply its effect. Now I know: some do (what’s wrong with spending three months preparing a patient for healing?).

It’s easy to see why Dr. Sacks is considered an exentric. His methods go beyond the cut and dry. They touch the soul. I think I like this.