Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks ranks as one of the most fascinating books of nonfiction that I have ever read. It was one of those books that once started, you did not want to put down. Oh, would life not get in the way of reading. 

Henrietta Lacks was born in 1920 in Roanoke, VA. When her mother died shortly after the birth of her 10th child, Henrietta was sent to Clover, VA to live with her grandfather. She grew up as a tobacco farmer's child and continued that way of life into her adulthood. She married David Lacks, her cousin in 1941. The couple relocated to Sparrows Point, MD where David worked in the Bethlehem Steel plant. In 1951, Henrietta felt a lump inside her and felt that something was just not right. She asked a cousin who assumed, correctly actually, that Henrietta was pregnant. However, after that birth, her fifth child, she went to the doctor at Johns Hopkins hospital. It was the only hospital in the area that would treat a black woman. Upon examination, it was discovered that she had cervical cancer.  Henrietta lost her battle with cancer that year after some aggressive radiation treatment. In the course of the treatment part of the tumor was removed along with healthy cells of the cervix. It is from the harvesting of these cells, that Henrietta's story becomes an incredible saga.

The cells were given to Dr. George Gey from a scientist from the University of Pittsburgh who was working at the tissue lab at JH. Until Scientists had been trying to grow cancerous cells for research, but they always died outside the body. Until - Henrietta Lacks. Her cells had the ability to reproduce in petrie dishes at an astonishing rate. And they have been reproducing for the last 60 years. Known as HeLa cells, they have been crucial to scientific research ever since. In the early days of research, they were crucial to the discovery and production of the Salk polio vaccine. 

Skloot covers the scientific background of the cell research, generally on a layman's level. I did feel lost, tho, at some points during the book, but I am not a scientifically minded person. She covers the ethical and legal aspects of harvesting and selling a person's tissue and cells. But the strength of the book is in Rebecca Skloot's methodology and her perseverance in getting to the bottom of the story and making it understandable to Lacks' children and grandchildren. She became a very good friend and confidant of Deborah Lacks, the fourth child. This aspect of the book created a very poignant and humanitarian narrative. The children struggle with what has happened to their mother and have powerful and strong reactions to those who want to tell Henrietta's story. I am glad that Rebecca Skloot was able to gain that trust and put it to paper for generations to come.   This is a captivating and important read.

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