The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

A young woman, a young family, a piece of tumor, a cancer cell line, a scientific revolution……

At first, it might seem like a story about cells that revolutionized medicine, leading to important advances in cell culture, development of vaccines, disease eradication and such.  It may even seem like a quest – a young woman finally breaks through and manages to tell a story accurately, that has eluded many others over the years.  Finally, a young woman has the cooperation of the family in question and we have all the facts. Another perspective has to do with a nation battling prejudice, and improvements in the process of informed consent, guiding biomedical research involving human tissues.

I also see a family tragedy in the story.  A young mom, a terrible disease, dying in pain and anguish, young children left behind, emotionally and physically traumatized by family caregivers, a special needs (or not) child loosing her mother at an early age, and a painful end to her life.  I see a woman who is plagued by the story of her mother’s life, and an older sister she never got to know.  Luckily, she finds out eventually, and achieves some closure before her own passing.

HeLa – a line of cancer cells from a woman named Henrietta Lacks.

The setting is Baltimore.  The main characters are Henrietta and David Lacks, and Margaret and George Gey.  Other important players are Dr. Howard Jones, several players in the Gey lab, Deborah and other Lacks family members and of course, Rebecca Skloot.  Henrietta presents to Johns Hopkins Hospital for a “knot inside me.”  It is an aggressive cervical cancer and Dr. Jones diagnoses this and starts radium treatment, but not before he collects a sample that would later grow and multiply in the Gey lab to produce the immortal HeLa cell line.  HeLa thrives and launches an era of cell culture technology and research but concurrently, Henrietta’s health declines and she succumbs to her disease at 12:15 a.m. on October 4, 1951.   She would never get to know that “her cells done lived longer than her memory.”  She would never get to know that she had something to do with the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping and more and yet, for quite a while, there was debate about who she really was, and her real name.

Her husband and children would find out much later, in a rather puzzling manner.  

You see, in those days, regulations about informed consent were not firmly in place.  Physicians and researchers could collect tissue without permission and the same applied to the origin of the HeLa cell line, a piece of tumor from Henrietta’s cervix.

In reading this book, one appreciates the hard work, effort, resilience and perseverance involved in biomedical research.  At the same time, the book sheds light on the widespread ramifications of a seemingly small advance in research, the unfortunate events that can follow the loss of a young mother and binding force in a family, and how societal practices can be pushed to change in difficult times.

Personally, I appreciated the efforts it took for Deborah Lacks and Rebecca Skloot to work together and tell the long overdue story of Henrietta Lacks.  Even despite the low points in the story (and there are many), I highly recommend this book.  Click here to purchase a copy.  You might also value this trailer of the HBO production starring Oprah Winfrey as Deborah Lacks.

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About the author: Rebecca Skloot was born on September 19, 1972.  She is a freelance science writer specializing in science and medicine.  In her case, the apple did not fall far from the tree, considering that her father, Floyd Skloot, is a poet and novelist.  It is also notable that “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” is her first book, and was one of the best-selling new books of 2010, reaching #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List.  She has a BS in biological sciences from Colorado State University, and an MFA in creative non-fiction from the University of Pittsburg.  You can read more about her on her website www.rebeccaskloot.com.

 

 

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Author of "Self navigate for health" available as eBook on Amazon and paperback on Lulu. Hematology-oncology physician writing about medical self-advocacy or "self-navigation", cancer, blood disorders, and books

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