The unbelievable life of Henrietta Lacks.
20 May 2010
I was absolutely blown away by the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. In the best possible way. And I loved being blown away by it, because it's been getting a lot of attention this spring, and every now and then I like to see a hyped book that is actually worth it.
If you haven't heard of it, it's the story of an African American woman named Henrietta Lacks, who died of cervical cancer in 1951. Only her story didn't end there; when the tumor on her cervix was originally studied, the doctor who took a sample of it at Johns Hopkins passed it along to a researcher named George Gey, who was trying to find a way to grow cells that could be used in medical experimentation. He hadn't been having a whole lot of luck, until he received Henrietta's cancerous cells, which grew, and grew, and grew...until they became known, formally, as the HeLa cell line, and went on to be used in hundreds (if not thousands; I'm not sure of the exact numbers) of medical experiments in labs around the world. Hence Henrietta's "immortal life."
I was not only blown away by the science of this book, but also by Henrietta's own story (growing up in poverty; having five children before dying at age 31; and still having the time to be a friend to those around her, cook meals for any family member who showed up, and even going out dancing with her girlfriends) and by Skloot's telling of it. In the course of researching the story, Skloot became involved in the lives of several of Henrietta's children, most particularly her daughter, Deborah. Often her relationship with the family was tense; they didn't really know what was happening, even after they were told (many years after the fact) about how their mother's cells were used, and many of them lacked health insurance, money, or access to decent health care, which understandably made them even more wary of the establishment.
Don't worry if you're not a science reader. Skloot makes the pertinent details easy to understand. Likewise, if you're a science reader and don't care much for the human interest stories, give this one a try anyway. If nothing else, it's a valuable narrative at a time in our history when, every time you go to the doctor, they like to get some urine and blood from you that you never hear about again.* I don't know that there's anything to be done about it, but it never hurts to be aware of facts like, once doctors remove tissue from you, that tissue no longer counts as you (even though it still contains your DNA) and they can pretty much do whatever they want with it.
It's a great book, one of my favorites of the year so far. I plan to hand it off to several other family members, which is going to be easy, since I spilled my Fiber One cereal all over it while reading it and eating breakfast, so I just had to buy my copy from the library. (I cleaned it up enough so that it is readable, but never let it be said that I shirk at my duty of paying for books I damage. This is the first one in thousands, so I can't feel too terribly about it. However, Mr. CR has suggested, and I have agreed, that I should no longer read library books while I eat my cereal.)
*At least this always seems to happen to me at the doctor. I mean, I guess it's good that they never find anything bad enough that they have to call me, but still. I give blood, I'd like to hear what they're finding.