Another magical book club meeting. Two months ago, I joined up with a coworker of mine and attended her book club. At the end of that meeting, hoping to insight me to return, they asked me what my favorite book was, and I said The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
First, here’s the synopsis from Goodreads:
Who, you might ask, is Henrietta Lacks (1920-1951) and why is she the subject of a book? On the surface, this short-lived African American Virginian seems an unlikely candidate for immortality. The most remarkable thing about her, some might argue, is that she had ten children during her thirty-one years on earth. Actually, we all owe Ms. Lacks a great debt and some of us owe her our lives. As Rebecca Skloot tells us in this riveting human story, Henrietta was the involuntary donor of cells from her cancerous tumors that have been cultured to create an immortal cell line for medical research. These so-called HeLa cells have not only generated billions of dollars for the medical industry; they have helped uncover secrets of cancers, viruses, fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping.
Now why on earth would a book about cells and science and medical advancements appeal to a girl who only walked through the science building on campus during winter when it was the shortest route to the English building? It’s because the author, Rebecca Skloot, spent a decade researching the subject and uncovering the family that belonged to Henrietta Lacks.
Sadly, we don’t know a lot about Henrietta’s life when she was alive. She died in her early 30’s and only one photo exists.
What makes Henrietta’s life so incredible is that she’s been living for the last 50+ years and will continue to live on! She lives on through her cells. Now known to have a rare enzyme that causes her cells to rebuild themselves, her cells are the ONLY cells to have survived and replenished themselves in history. Think of a medical advancement in the last 50 years. Polio vaccine? Cells in space? Chemotherapy? They all came as a result of tests done on Henrietta Lack’s cells. HeLa cells, as they are called after her, were taken involuntarily from a tumor in her cervix at Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950’s.
Now, 50+ years later, HeLa cells are sold in vials for $500 to $10,000! And up until Rebecca Skloot’s book came around, no one even knew who Henrietta Lacks was.
My book club is made up of women who are all 30 years my senior, and I am in complete awe of their intelligence and eloquence every time I meet them. To read this book with a group that is made up of teachers, professors, psychiatrists, and nurses was about as rich a discussion as you can get on this book!
The story is about more than science, though ultimately that is what started the story in the first place. A doctor taking samples and testing them. Fifty years ago, there wasn’t even a term like “informed consent.” And as you read the book, it becomes difficult to find fault with one party. Who is the real exploiter, is it the doctor who took the sample, the doctor who gave the sample away freely to other research studies and labs, or the journalist who first printed her name?
And what about the family? Their mother’s cells have saved thousands, millions?, of lives, and are being sold on the internet, yet the family can’t afford medical insurance.
As I said before, this book is not ONLY about science. It is a story about a family. A family deeply ignorant of education. A family that was abused in multiple ways, and received little closure or compensation. And the author spent a lot of time earning the trust of this family, teaching them, sharing first experiences with them, and helping them to heal. She didn’t fix things. In many ways, it’s a complicated issue that can’t be solved with a check or even with this book publication. No, she didn’t fix things. But she did tell their story, the story of their mother, Henrietta Lacks, how she changed the world and saved lives, and how through knowing their mother, their own lives could begin to grow again.
The author, Rebecca Skloot, shares her memory of taking Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, and her son, Zakariyya, to a lab to see HeLa cells for the first time.
This is my favorite book. What’s yours?