A collection of essays by a surgical pathologist Nadler, who deciphers the results of biopsies and other tissue samples in search of disease.
The subtitle is a bit misleading, for the eight essays collected here are really much more concerned with the impact of disease and aging on the individual patients Nadler encounters in his daily practice than in “the cellular world of biopsies” that is the stated aim of his study. In general, surgical pathologists rarely meet the actual people whose tissue they study, but Nadler, who has been living through the microscope for some 25 years, feels an acute urge for the community of doctor and patient—and that urge led to these stories. There is a downside to that decision; as he admits, “by confining myself to cells, I stay clear of the fiery trials of illness,” and the patients he writes about are suffering from terrible diseases—various cancers, sickle-cell anemia, spinal cord injury, Alzheimer’s, and the simple, inexorable fact of aging. An Alzheimer’s patient is described as “more than the sum of [the] tangles and plaques” of his distorted cellular world, and the best moments in this account are those in which Nadler is able to make us see the connection between cellular phenomena and human suffering. This is nowhere more clear than in the chapter on Comille, a frighteningly mature eight-year-old boy with sickle-cell anemia whose childhood has been an unending series of hospitalizations and a constant stream of pain. On the whole, the collection reads like the disparate collection of essays that it clearly is, but Nadler is an excellent and compassionate observer and an intelligent writer.
Although this doesn’t cohere except on a grand thematic level, each individual essay has a considerable impact.