"If there's a book you really want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it." ~Toni Morrison

Sunday, January 12, 2014

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot

The Story: 
This book is a nonfiction account of Henrietta Lacks, her cells and her family.  Henrietta died of cervical cancer in the early 50's.  Samples of her cells were taken and grown in a lab without her knowledge.  Her cells grew at an amazing rate and have resulted in numerous medical breakthroughs.  Meanwhile her remaining family lived in poverty, unaware of Henrietta's immortality.

My Thoughts:  
Before even beginning this book, I had an affinity for Henrietta Lacks.  I had heard about her situation and understood how her family could be upset about her cells being used for research without their knowledge or consent.  What I did not know earlier is that they wanted her to be recognized as more than just a HeLa cell.  No one really seemed to know what/who HeLa stood for, even though they were using the cells in various types of research all around the world.

Henrietta's husband tended to anger me.  Overall I could tell that he cared for his wife, but he often cheated on her and passed STDs to her.  It is possible one of those diseases led to her cancer.  When I read that he blamed her cancer for the symptoms of his STD, I wanted to reach into the book, grab him and shake some sense into him.

It is amazing what Henrietta's cells have done for medicine.  They were used in the creation of the Polio vaccine.  Her cells were used so extensively that they led to the standardization of the process used for growing cells in a lab.  They even helped bring about cloning and IVF.

Overall this book just made me sad.  The Lacks family were so poorly educated that even when they learned what had been done with Henrietta's cells, they couldn't understand it fully.  Henrietta's daughter thought that there were copies of her mother walking around England, because a scientist there had cloned Henrietta's cells.  The family tried to get more information about what had been done with the cells, tried to understand the technical tests and articles, but it was still beyond their level of understanding.

I absolutely recommend this book.  At first I was put off by the fact that the author includes her research process in the story, but as I read on I realized it was an important part of the story of Henrietta's family.  It revealed more about them than she could tell in her own words.  The sad truth is that every day we give our tissues and samples to medical personnel who then have the right to do whatever they want with those samples without ever informing the donor.  This book is a fascinating look into the issue of medical samples and their use.

Have your read this book?  What did you think?

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