Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Henrietta Lacks went to John Hopkins Hospital in the 1950's for abnormal bleeding she was having. The gynecologist diagnosed her as having cervical cancer and ordered a biopsy. While having the procedure, the doctor took part of her cervix and sent it to Dr. George Gey. Dr. Gey was performing tests on cells to see if he could make them grow. Henrietta's cells had a life of their own. After years of testing and failing, Dr. Gey finally had a group of cells that stayed alive and continued multiplying, allowing him and others in his field, to use them in different medical tests. Henrietta's cells were called HeLa, based on the first 2 initials of her first and last name. Through the use of tests run using HeLa the vaccine for polio was developed, along with many other medical advances. No one thought anything of it, and the scientists were thrilled to have this breakthrough. The only thing was, they never got Henrietta or anyone in her family's permission to take that sample during surgery. In fact, the family didn't know anything about it.

I was not sure what to expect with this book but it definitely was not the amazing story I have been consumed with for the past 5 days. At times funny, heartbreaking, and astounding, Skloot takes you to Baltimore, where she attempts to speak to Henrietta's family for her book, to the basement of John Hopkins Hospital, to a mental institute where Henrietta's one daughter died. It is astounding to me that these cells were taken without any one's permission, scientists have made numerous medical advances and money working with them, while Henrietta's own children and grandchildren could not afford an education or health insurance. The trials this family has been through will always stay with me.

The one point that really made me fall into this book, was that race did not come into it. Henrietta was a black woman. The scientists for the most part were white men. But her daughter, Deborah, who is one of the focal points of this amazing story, understands that what her family went through has nothing to do with black or white, even though her brothers think at times think otherwise. It has to do with doctors thinking they know what is best, and us, as patients, going along with what they say because we feel they really do know best. It has to do with family and the ties that bind and some times break. Deborah is 50 years old and has no memory of her mother whatsoever because she was an infant when the cancer took her life. All people ever want to ask her and talk to her about are HeLa cells; and she just wants to know what her mom smelled like, what was she like as a person? I wish I could give this amazing story more than 5 stars. Every time I have any test done now I will wonder, are they running tests on my cells as well? And do they have the right to do that at all?

5 stars

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