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Oliver Sacks teaches us what it’s like to be ‘face to face with dying’

Oliver Sacks — the famed neurologist and intellectual — is “face to face with dying.”

In an op-ed penned for the New York Times, 81-year-old Sacks revealed today that he has terminal cancer. Nine years ago, he was diagnosed with a rare ocular cancer, which recently metastasized after nearly a decade of good health. The disease now occupies a third of his liver.

“It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me.”

Upon learning the news, Hari Sreenivasan shared a story with PBS NewsHour staff about meeting Sacks for the first time. The scientist has face blindness — he is quite literally blind when it comes to recognizing faces, a condition Radiolab once explored with Sacks in detail. But somehow, he recognized Sreenivasan before greetings were exchanged. Sacks’ explanation?

“I know you by the whites of your teeth,” he told Sreenivasan.

One of the techniques to overcome face blindness is finding distinct characteristics to connect to a person. Sreenivasan said Sacks explained that every night he watched NewsHour. And at the same time during each broadcast, he’d “see a guy with the same pearly whites deliver the news.”

In his op-ed, Sacks said he’s chosen to spend the rest of his time focusing on friends and family, cutting out all “inessential” parts of life. That includes watching NewsHour each night.

Though he may not learn about the world from us anymore, we will undoubtedly continue to learn from him.

“Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”