Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Author Rebecca Skloot first heard about HeLa cells in an introduction to biology class she took at a community college as a makeup for a failed high school class. The lecture about HeLa cells and Henrietta Lacks ended with, "She was a black woman." That statement launched the author's interest in biology and piqued her curiosity into the life of Henrietta Lacks. By the time she earned a degree in biology, Skloot had decided to write a book about the woman whose cells survived long after her death.

I almost didn't read this book. It was at first a need to read rather than a desire to read. Then my daughter (an Ob/Gyn) told me it was a must read, and my own Gyno said I must read. I asked my doc if a layperson would be able to understand all the biological/medical language and she assured me the book is historical and biographical as well. I was convinced to start reading. It didn't take long before I was reading into the night about the life of Henrietta Lacks.

The author wisely alternates between chapters about Henrietta's genealogy, life, treatment, death; and the clinical studies, distribution of the cells grown from the biopsy taken from Henrietta's cervical cancer. The author chronicles her knowledge of unethical experimentation on human patients ranging from Nazi experiments on concentration camp inmates to the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. The outrage recorded during the Nuremberg trials never resulted in changes in medical practice or ethics, so that no requirement for informed consent was written into law.

Ms. Skloot traces Henrietta's family back to a slave plantation in Virginia, through the Jim Crow era when there was little access to medical treatment for poor blacks. Henrietta was part of the Great Migration, moving to Baltimore where Johns Hopkins Hospital provided medical treatment for blacks often in exchange for uninformed participation in clinical studies.

It became painful to read of Henrietta's lack of access to a peaceful and pain-free transition though a horrendously painful death, especially when juxtaposed against the multi-million dollar industry which grew out of the cancerous cells taken from her.

Ms Skloot spent years tracing Henrietta's children, who were babies at the time of her death in 1951. As Skloot learns about the life of Henrietta, her children have a glimpse into the mother they never knew, as well.

This is a true story you must read. I give it five stars.