A physician’s experience with women religious

A member of the Little Sisters of the Poor assists a woman at the Little Sisters’ Jeanne Jugan Residence in Washington, DC.
(CNS file photo)

Although usually quite shy, Dr. Oliver Sacks was so enchanted by a lunar eclipse one night that he stopped people on the street and pressed his small telescope into their hands. “Look! Look what’s happening to the moon!” he exclaimed to each one.

A physician and writer, Sacks had an enthusiasm for telling people about what he found wondrous, and that included the ministry of women religious he knew, the Little Sisters of the Poor.

The community had its beginning in France in 1839 when Saint Jeanne Jugan brought an old blind woman out of the cold and into her own small apartment to care for her. The congregation currently has 27 homes for needy elderly persons in the United States.

Sacks saw residents at the Little Sisters’ homes for 40 years. When Robin Williams was preparing to portray a character based on Sacks for the 1990 film “Awakenings,” he wanted to accompany the doctor when he saw patients. The first place they went to was a facility run by the nuns.

(The doctor had a second Hollywood incarnation in 2001. The character played by Bill Murray in Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tennenbaums” was inspired by Sacks.)

Sacks became perhaps the only famous neurologist in America when his books started attracting a popular audience, beginning in 1985 with “The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.” The book is a collection of essays based on individuals with neurological abnormalities. The title came from Dr. P., a musician with visual agnosia: while his eyesight was fine, his brain could not recognize anything he saw. He could not distinguish, say, a parking meter from a small child and, yes, he once confused his wife’s head with his own hat.

Sacks was a gifted storyteller and his tales of individuals with unusual, even bizarre, conditions convey sympathy and respect, even admiration, for his patients.

“Well, in medicine, I think the person can be replaced by the CAT scan and the EEG, which reduces the person to an object, and it reduces the physician to a technician, and I think, I think this is a great ever-present danger in medicine,” he said in a 1995 television interview.

In his autobiography, “On the Move,” he complained of nursing homes where he saw “the complete subjugation of the human to medical arrogance and technology.”

“That those who entered such nursing homes needed meaning — a life, an identity, dignity, self-respect, a degree of autonomy — was ignored or bypassed; ‘care’ was purely mechanical and medical,” he wrote. But, he continued, he found the exact opposite at facilities run by the Little Sisters. “Their homes are about life — living the fullest, most meaningful life possible given their residents’ limitations and needs,” he said.

The doctor’s comments on the women religious he knew are worth repeating at this time, as the church prepares to celebrate World Day of the Sick on Feb. 11 and because the church has just observed World Day of Prayer for Consecrated Life on Feb. 2. Most Catholics would quickly assert that his evaluation of the sisters’ professionalism and dedication is true of all women and men religious working in health care, and also true of those in other ministries, such as education and social services.

Sacks was not a Catholic. Raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, his teenage religious doubts were compounded by his mother’s initial reaction upon learning he was gay — she cursed him as an “abomination,” an allusion to the prohibitions against homosexual activity in Leviticus. In old age, he said he longed to believe in God but could not. His last piece of writing, published only two weeks before his death from cancer, was “Sabbath,” a wistful reflection on his family’s observance of the day of rest.

While Sacks did not consider himself religious, he recognized the centrality of faith in the ministry of the nuns.

There is no “preachiness, no evangelism, no religious pressure of any sort” in their homes, and not all residents are believers, he observed. But, he added, “there is a great religious devotion among the sisters, and it is difficult to imagine such a level of care without such deep dedication.”

“The Little Sisters inspire me,” he said.

Carl Peters is the Catholic Star Herald managing editor.