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Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells – taken without her knowledge in 1951 – became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, and more. Henrietta’s cells  have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown, and her family can’t afford health insurance. This phenomenal New York Times bestseller tells a riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine; of scientific discovery and faith healing; and of a daughter consumed with questions about the mother she never knew. 

(Story synopsis from Broadway Books paperback edition; cover image from goodreads.com)

I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I first started reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. I’m not a science-minded personal in general (although I do love reading about and learning about psychology), and I knew that the Biomedical class at the high school I work at had read part of the book, but I hadn’t heard much about it from the students. I also don’t remember ever hearing about Henrietta Lacks before. However, I was given the book to read by someone who thought I might enjoy it. At the time I was given the book I was in the middle of reading Half the Sky, and so The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was set to the side for a little while.

When I did finally get a chance to start reading Rebecca Skloot’s nonfiction novel, I was pleasantly surprised by what I was reading. Skloot created a story that showed as much of Henrietta’s life as she could discover, as well as telling what had happened to Henrietta’s children after she was dead. The book also explained how Henrietta had achieved “immortality” within the science community. However, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks also raises many questions about what should happen with a person’s cells or other parts, such as tissue that are collected by science. The questions that are raised do not have an easy answer for either the public or science. (I know it made me question what has happened to the blood samples I’ve given for tests, and if they’re still sitting in a freezer somewhere.)

When Henrietta’s cells were collected and stored for research, there wasn’t the same concept of patient consent as there is today. There is also the issue that once the tissues or cells leave a patient, that patient no longer has “ownership” of them. This means that even though Henrietta’s cells contributed to many discoveries in science, and have helped to generate revenue for some, none of that revenue or recognition has gone to Henrietta or her descendants. This is where some of the issues are discussed. Here we have the cells of Henrietta Lacks contributing to discoveries in science and making progress on the one hand, and on the other hand we have Henrietta’s children and grandchildren who do not have proper access to health care.

Skloot takes us along on her research as she tried to discover the woman behind the HeLa cells and the many paths that they have taken. Henrietta’s children also did not have the proper education to help them understand what had been happening to her cells, so there were many questions that they had after the death of their mother. I believe that through this journey, Rebecca Skloot was able to bring answers to many of the questions that the family, especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, had. Rebecca was able to give them access to the information that they didn’t have before, even though there still isn’t a final resolution.

Skloot’s book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, allowed to reader to look at the journey of Henrietta’s cells and the impact on Henrietta’s family of her death. This book is a really interesting read, and one that could interest anyone…even those who don’t typically read science books.

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