In 1984 Handler was a moderately successful 23 year old New York City actor, when he developed acute myelogenous leukemia. Strongly supported by his girlfriend and family, Handler underwent induction and, later, consolidation chemotherapy at Sloan-Kettering Memorial Hospital, where he also began his long experience (the "comedy of terrors" or, perhaps more appropriately, the "tragedy of errors") of a harsh, hostile medical environment populated by arrogant physicians, condescending nurses, and a host of unhelpful minor characters.

Handler carries us briskly through his first remission, the impact of his illness on his family and personal relationships, his experience with nonconventional healing (Simonton Cancer Center), his return to work on Broadway, his relapse, and the agony of a second round of induction chemotherapy at Sloan-Kettering.

Subsequently, he goes to Johns Hopkins Hospital to undergo the rigors of an autologous bone marrow transplant. At Hopkins he discovers to his surprise a medical setting far different from Sloan-Kettering: communicative, compassionate physicians and a patient-centered healing environment. Even the two hospitals' sperm banks reflect this radical difference in approach.

After surviving his transplant and a subsequent round of serious infections, Handler resumes his life. He realizes that most of the time nowadays he is not in touch with the sense of joy and gratitude for each moment that the illness taught him. Yet, these feelings exist below his consciousness; sometimes he steps through "a little doorway near the floor of my consciousness" and experiences his life in a simpler, more profound way.


This is a remarkably perceptive and well-written narrative of one man's encounter with lethal illness and with the medical establishment that combats it. Unlike the authors of many pathographies, Handler looks back on his experience with humor and sensitivity. Moreover, Handler is a brilliant writer who sustains the reader's interest by the elegance and power of his story-telling.

The description of medical care (is "care" the right word here?) at Sloan-Kettering Memorial Hospital presents the Dark Side of high-tech medicine in an almost pure form. The stories of the sterile sperm bank, Dr. Zweig, Dr. Melman, and the chemo nurses will bring a flash of recognition to anyone familiar with today's hospitals. Handler's experience at Johns Hopkins and his brief consultation in Seattle demonstrate the more compassionate, less arrogant side of medicine. Leading edge technology does not necessarily preclude caring.

From a health care professional's perspective, one of the major lessons of this book is that patient-centered care can actually thrive in a world of machines. It is simply a question of having the right priorities.


The author/actor performs a version of this work as a one-man play.


Little, Brown

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