Happy Birthday, Oliver Sacks!

Dr. Oliver Sacks wrote and told many stories over the years about his patients’ struggles with disease and their feats in the face of extraordinary challenge. In one of them, he narrates how he used to greet aphasia patients by singing “Happy Birthday” to them, irrespective of whether it was their birthday or not. He did this because everyone knew the words of this song, and often even people who had lost their ability to speak could sing along parts of it. It was his kind way of letting a person with aphasia join in.

Today is the 82nd birthday of Dr. Sacks – a luminous mind, a celebrated writer, and a treasured board member of the National Aphasia Association. As many of you may have already heard, Dr. Sacks recently shared with the public that he has terminal cancer. The news has saddened many hearts, including ours here at the NAA. But today, on this special birthday, we wanted to celebrate with Dr. Sacks the years he has spent bringing to us the magic of science and medicine through his fascinating writing and language. And we wanted to thank him for his extraordinary kindness towards persons with aphasia. We have selected a few excerpts and videos where Dr. Sacks talks about Aphasia and his personal encounters with people who suffer from this devastating communication deficit.

Maybe the best place to start is an excerpt from The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, one of the most beloved books from Oliver Sacks, a collection of clinical tales about patients with neurological disorders. The book includes accounts about aphasia as well. One of those tales relates the story of patients with the severest receptive or global aphasia who had gathered to watch the President speaking. It begins like this:

What was going on? A roar of laughter from the aphasia ward, just as the President’s speech was coming on, and they had all been so eager to hear the President speaking…

Dr. Sacks has had many encouraging words for people with aphasia, even those who have had the hardest of luck.

I think that even in the most severely affected patients, something can be done. If not by way of recovering their language, by way of making life more tolerable and more fun.

In the video below, he talks about a patient with aphasia who learned to speak with short phrases with the help of music therapy.

In a 2009 interview with Harper’s Magazine about his book Musicophilia, Dr. Sacks answers questions about music therapy, among other things. He shares his experience with an aphasia patient for whom this type of therapy proved life changing.

One sixty-seven-year-old man, aphasic for eighteen months—he could only produce meaningless grunts and had received three months of speech therapy without effect—started to produce words two days after beginning melodic intonation therapy; in two weeks, he had an effective vocabulary of a hundred words, and at six weeks, he could carry on “short, meaningful conversations.”

In this video Oliver Sacks talks about a patient, a woman called Patricia, who had had a stroke that resulted in aphasia. Dr. Sacks recounts how her extraordinary will and ability to find a way around her communication deficits has inspired him to write about her.

Besides being touching stories about patients, these accounts also show the interest Dr. Sacks took in his patients, their problems, and the way disease affected their lives.

Happy Birthday, Dr. Sacks!

To read more about Oliver Sacks and his fascinating books about life, neuroscience and medicine, visit his official website

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