I recently discovered a must read.
My book club read the book, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by science writer Rebecca Skloot. Published in 2010, the book tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a poor African-American tobacco farmer whose cells were taken without her knowledge in 1951. Those cells became one of the most important tools in medicine. The cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in-vitro fertilization and helped uncover secrets of cancer, according to Skloot’s book.
Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951. She was treated at Johns Hopkins University, where a doctor named George Gey snipped cells from her cervix. Gey took the cells to create an immortal cell line for medical research. This is now known as the “HeLa” cell line, named after Lacks.
Have you heard of Henrietta Lacks? What about the “HeLa” cell line?
I hadn’t heard of either until my book club approved the reading. I had heard from peers it was an interesting book. The most anyone could tell me was that it was a book about a scientist stealing cells from an African-American woman. Well, it was so much more than that.
It’s a significant story in what it can teach us about ethics, race, medicine and bioethics. Many schools agree there are multiple lessons in the book as some schools have even added it to required reading lists.
In the book, the reader can see the lack of care given to ailing patients of color and justification for removal of the cells as a scientific norm. He or she will learn about Henrietta’s struggle with the illness and her family’s struggle trusting Skloot to help find out the truth about their loved one.
I know the topics tackled in the book seem a little deep. They are.
This woman made a profound contribution in medical history. More than 20 years passed before her family even learned of the use of her cells and their value. As science advanced from the use of the cells, her family lived in poverty and could not afford health insurance. It’s really something when one thinks of the irony in the story of this woman.
What surprised me was even though it was very much a book about science and how cells work and are studied, it didn’t read like a medical text book. It was presented in a way that could be understood without a dictionary at your side.
Like many stories it was the characters that made the book memorable. Henrietta had four children – three boys and one daughter. Her daughter, Deborah, is an unforgettable character in the book.
Deborah was the key to getting the information needed to tell a complete story. Work on the book was also a way for Henrietta’s children to learn more about their mother.
As a journalist, I enjoyed observing the author’s determination to tell a story many others had half-told. She endured the multiple personalities of family members, the good ole silent treatment and detours in the reporting process.
What made her successful was she wasn’t like all the reporters that came before her. She proved to the family she was interested in the woman behind the cells. Until she came upon the scene, Henrietta was referred to only as “HeLa,” the name of her cells. She had even been misidentified as Helen Lane by researchers to keep media from finding out who she really was.
Skloot worked hard to introduce us to Henrietta, a woman who prided herself on a neat appearance, worked hard and loved her family.
I know days are crowded and time seems limited. However, on a weekend when you’re feeling bored or you want to relax with a good book, pick this one up. You’ll be glad you did.