Awakenings was a movie I had always planned to watch, especially since I am a huge fan of it’s main star Robert De Niro. I always had this on my list, but never got around to watching it because I do not like watching movies with hospitals and diseases because they make me sad. A few days ago I finally got around to watch the movie, and I was taken aback by the miraculous story of the film.
The patients in the movie are all survivors of the 1917–1928 encephalitis lethargica epidemic, and are all currently in a catatonic state, meaning they are always in a frozen kind of state but respond to certain stimuli. A person who gets infected by this disease would be aware of their surroundings, but would not be able to move or speak and be forever frozen like a statue. Dr. Oliver Sacks, who wrote the book “Awakenings” on which this movie is based on, refers to them as “insubstantial as ghosts, and as passive as zombies”. People who develop this disease often go through oculogyric crises, muscular pains, tremors and various tics. It is often confused with a form of Parkinsonism, but certain traits like the aforementioned Oculogyric crises, respiratory disturbances only occur in patients with encephalitis lethargica. Parkinsonism, however, played a very brief role in curing patients with encephalitis lethargica. Dr. Sacks administered L-DOPA, a drug used to cure Parkinson patients to his patients with encephalitis lethargica, and for a brief period they seemed to “awaken” from their catatonic states and resume a normal life. However, these awakenings were very short lived as patients tended to revert to their original catatonic states as well as endure side effects of such anti-Parkinson drugs. Once a person is diagnosed with encephalitis lethargica, the disease tends to get worse and causes brain damage. There hasn’t been a concrete cure for this to date, over 100 years after the outbreak. Makes you wonder about COVID-19 and it’s cure and how long till it is contained.
In the initial outbreak which haunted Europe, about a third of the patients died with respiratory failures. Many patients survived, and resumed normal lives. But many of them started showing symptoms years later, and even today there are isolated cases of encephalitis lethargica all over the world. Oliver Sacks’ miraculous but temporary treatment was a beacon of hope for the patients as well as many medical professionals all over the world, as they thought a drug prescribed for a different disorder had yielded successful results for a disease it was not. But the short lived awakening states quickly turned from joy to misery. The character of Dr. Sayer in the movie doesn’t exist (Sacks based the character off of his own life), and it is never explicitly stated if the main character Leonard Lowe was actually a real character, but it did show the viewers that even if the awakening and effects of levadopa were short lived, it allowed Leonard to feel like a human again as well as talk with his mother after being asleep for over 30 years of his life. To this day, no one knows where the disease originated from or what caused it. It’s origin remains a mystery.