Bout with leukemia plays central role in actor's life

November 28, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Although Evan Handler has been a professional actor -- on Broadway and in Hollywood -- since he was 17, the most dramatic event of his life took place not on a stage but in a `D hospital, where he fought and won a life-threatening battle with acute myeloid leukemia.

That battle is the subject of "Time on Fire," Handler's one-man show, which he will perform at Center Stage's Head Theater Thursday. Most of the second act takes place at Johns Hopkins Hospital, where the actor spent 60 days undergoing a bone marrow transplant in 1988.

In the show, which was a critical and popular success off-Broadway earlier this year, Handler recounts the time his attending physician, Dr. Andrew M. Yeager, came into his

hospital room a few weeks after the transplant. Not only did Yeager express cautious optimism about the progress of Handler's marrow cells, but he also suggested that the patient look at a sample under the microscope himself.

Handler admits he didn't understand what he was seeing. But he explains in the show that he spent a long time peering into the microscope to hide his tears -- "tears of joy, cried over the doctor who let me be one of them."

In "Time on Fire," this incident is particularly moving because of -- the contrast with what Handler calls the "New York-style" treatment he received at the Memorial Sloane-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan.

That treatment began with such minor irritations as portable I.V. poles whose wheels refused to move in the same direction. It culminated in the outrage he felt when his New York doctor attempted to appeal to his sympathy by explaining that he was being sued for malpractice after the deaths of three other patients.

When he was diagnosed with leukemia eight years ago, Handler, now 32, had already made a name for himself as an actor. With his pleasant good looks and seemingly easy-going manner, he was a natural for the breezy comedies of Neil Simon. He was a member of the Broadway company of Simon's "Biloxi Blues" when he began to be troubled by what he describes as "mostly a sore throat that wouldn't go away, flu symptoms that wouldn't give up."

He made an appointment with an ear, nose and throat doctor who gave him an examination that included a blood test. "One thing led to another," Handler says matter-of-factly.

Handler was in his second remission when he became a patient at Hopkins. His chances for a cure, with a bone marrow transplant, were 35 percent to 40 percent. "Without a transplant, his chance for cure was zero," according to Yeager, who says he is "flattered to be part of the quote-unquote good medical treatment" described in "Time on Fire."

Handler received an autologous bone marrow transplant at Hopkins. In layman's terms, that means the patient's own marrow is used instead of a donor's. "At the time Mr. Handler underwent his bone marrow transplant, this was still an investigational procedure, and the chance of death from transplant-related complications, independent of the kind of disease the transplant was meant to correct, was substantial," says Yeager, who was the original researcher of this procedure.

Hope and positive attitude

Yet despite the dangers Handler was facing when Yeager met him, the doctor recalls, "I was impressed that he carried with him the combination of hopefulness and positive attitude that he could overcome this incredible obstacle -- the death sentence that he was given, so to speak."

For his part, Handler says the medical care he received at Hopkins "was like landing on another planet. . . . I got the impression of a first-place team that doesn't have to scream in anybody's face: 'We're the best, we're the best, we're the best,' as opposed to where I was coming from, where they seemed intent on -- well, I don't know what they were intent on, but there was often a lot spoken about, 'You don't have to look anywhere else. We're the best. If we don't know the answer, nobody else does,' which I learned later is one of the best reasons to look somewhere else."

Handler returned to Hopkins earlier this fall to perform "Time on Fire" at a reunion of bone marrow transplant recipients and their families; he is one of the hospital's success stories. Five and a half years have passed since his transplant, and, according to Yeager, who recently left Hopkins for Atlanta's Emory University School of Medicine, "We think Evan is cured of his leukemia."

Although the soul-baring "Time on Fire" might seem like a cathartic part of that cure, Handler didn't start working on the performance piece until about 18 months ago. He acknowledges that "At the very beginning of the illness I kept some journal entries, [and] there were scribblings over the course of years." But it wasn't until a New York theater company called Naked Angels offered him a chance to participate in its play-reading series that he began assembling his thoughts in dramatic form.

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