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'That's the wrong X-ray, or I'm a dead man'


Ralph Siegel's anger at dying an early death
Oliver Sacks Scientist
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I’m... I'm very grateful to be alive, in particular sometimes on lovely days I say, 'I’m glad I’m not dead!’ But Ralph is dead. Many, many... a third of my contemporaries are dead. I feel lucky and even blessed to have lived into my late 70s because I’ve had more life, I’ve done more things, I’ve met more people, but I think I’ve also – and this hasn’t been a conscious effort – somehow got more of a feeling of the... of the wholeness of life. But Ralph just died at 52 and... I think perhaps until the end, may have… he used to say, 'It sucks' – angry, bitter feeling, very understandable at this cruel chance which cut... was cutting him off in the prime of life. Towards the end he no longer had that rage, which he would... he would sometimes clench his unparalysed left fist, especially when he couldn’t find words and he was tormented by aphasia. Towards the end he didn’t seem to be tormented and whether this was stoicism, bravery, a philosophical stance, resignation, or even partly an organic indifference, I... I don’t know. I think his last weeks were peaceful, but still he was done out of a big chunk of life.

Oliver Sacks (1933-2015) was born in England. Having obtained his medical degree at Oxford University, he moved to the USA. There he worked as a consultant neurologist at Beth Abraham Hospital where in 1966, he encountered a group of survivors of the global sleepy sickness of 1916-1927. Sacks treated these patients with the then-experimental drug L-Dopa producing astounding results which he described in his book Awakenings. Further cases of neurological disorders were described by Sacks with exceptional sympathy in another major book entitled The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat which became an instant best seller on its publication in 1985. His other books drew on his rich experiences as a neurologist gleaned over almost five decades of professional practice. Sacks's work was recognized by prestigious institutions which awarded him numerous honours and prizes. These included the Lewis Thomas Prize given by Rockefeller University, which recognizes the scientist as poet. He was an honorary fellow of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and held honorary degrees from many universities, including Oxford, the Karolinska Institute, Georgetown, Bard, Gallaudet, Tufts, and the Catholic University of Peru.

Listeners: Kate Edgar

Kate Edgar, previously Managing Editor at the Summit Books division of Simon and Schuster, began working with Oliver Sacks in 1983. She has served as editor and researcher on all of his books, and has been closely involved with various films and adaptations based on his work. As friend, assistant, and collaborator, she has accompanied Dr Sacks on many adventures around the world, clinical and otherwise.

Tags: Ralph Siegel

Duration: 1 minute, 57 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2011

Date story went live: 02 October 2012