Below is a book review I wrote in the beginning of the semester about Rebecca Skloot's book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
She’s Saving the World, and She’s Dead
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
By Rebecca Skloot
369 pp. Crown Publishers. $26
The passionate demeanor of Rebecca Skloot’s debut book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks will undeniably impact your view on genetic research. This gripping story explores the wonder and hope science offers, but it also demonstrates the potential trauma that could affect patients and their families. Through her use of a braided narrative, Skloot logically describes the science, attentively recounts the racial politics of medicine, and shares with compassion the Lacks family’s heartbreaking account. In this way, the book discusses the multi-million dollar medical revolution that was made possible by an unaware, poverty-stricken Southern woman.
Habitually, scienctific writing deals solely with “the facts.” However, Skloot approaches HeLa (the scientific name for Henrietta Lack’s cells) with a bold and fresh quality not usually found in science research. Despite the book’s ambiguous genre, the reader might be tempted to label it a typical piece of scientific literature. On the contrary, the first chapter captures the heart [cliché?] of anyone who senses the pain of Henrietta’s family. Though originally propelled by the mystery behind these scientific events, Skloot’s curiosity ultimately merges with empathy in her decade-long quest for truth.
Many people acknowledge the crucial impact science has made on medical advancements, and most would recognize the words “cell culture” and possibly the word “HeLa.” However, these same people may not be able to identify the immense number of scientific accomplishments directly associated with HeLa, that have in some way changed their lives. Through this book, readers will discover the woman behind the cells who, as it turns out, is Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman who struggled to raise her large family in the midst of hard times.
Skloot helps readers understand the widespread racism and cultural upheaval during Lacks’ life.. In the beginning of 1951, Henrietta Lacks resided in Baltimore with her husband and four children. While pregnant with her fifth child, she had been bravely suffering with “a knot on” her womb. After she gave birth, the pain worsened, and when it became too much to bear, she sought medical attention at Johns Hopkins Hospital. During the fifties, this was the only charity hospital in Baltimore that was willing to treat black patients. The prognosis was worse than grim. Everything Henrietta had once feared, the nightmare she dreaded, became a harsh reality. The diagnosis was cancer of the cervix. Severe treatments of radium were the only available “strategy” to fight this horrid and deadly disease. The attending physician decided to take two dime-sized samples from her cervix. One sample was that of healthy tissue; the other was cancerous. Henrietta was never presented with a consent form, nor was she offered a verbal request of permission in exchange for these samples. Unfortunately, to the family’s dismay Henrietta lost her battle against cancer and died, but her cells did not.
The two samples taken were given to George Gey, a scientist who had been desperately researching the possibility of an immortal cell line. Gey had high hopes for using these eternal cells for various types of research, including future cancer treatments, and even a “cure” for death. Once Henrietta’s cells arrived at Gey’s laboratory, his assistant Margret followed their typical protocol, expecting uneventful and average results. She hastily scribbled down an abbreviation of the patient’s name, and thus “HeLa” was born.
To Gey’s passionate and elated surprise, HeLa cells conquered the fight against death and were able to reproduce in laboratory settings. They surprised science by surviving when all other cells perished. These cells became the first live cultures to ever endure life trapped in a laboratory. Gey began giving HeLa cells to interested colleagues, doctors, and researches with the hope of finding cures for fatal diseases. The number of successful experiments and momentous discoveries was increasing almost as quickly as the cells could reproduce.
Inevitably, these series of events have brought to the surface many moral and ethical questions scientists apparently forgot to ask themselves.
These scientific discoveries are exciting, right? Did you make the same error the scientists did? Have you already forgotten the family? Back in Baltimore, a family was plagued by the unanswered questions their mother left behind. Five children were motherless and were justifiably confused, angry, and yearning for closure. Skloot realized this problem during a high school science class. She was determined to obtain a well-deserved resolution for the family. Through her poignant book, it seems she has succeeded.
In most pieces of historical literature produced in our era, the author rarely becomes a part or plays a direct role in the book she creates. Conversely, in the course of the first three chapters, Skloot becomes one of the most essential and prominent characters within her book. Skloot finds herself deeply connected to the Lacks family, especially Henrietta’s daughter Deborah. During the many months and ultimately years Skloot spent trying to acquire Deborah’s trust, she unearths answers to many of the unsolved questions the family had. Skloot becomes an addition to the family, helping the members overcome burdened mysteries and an enormous, yet justified, resentment of doctors.
While HeLa was the central core for a multi-million dollar industry, Henrietta’s family could not afford medical insurance and certainly did not trust medical professionals enough to seek treatment. As a result, they suffered from many different medical ailments. Twenty years after their mother’s cells were taken, the family found out that her cells were still living. Uneducated and confused, they assumed their mother was trapped as a science project and enduring terrible experiments. Deborah was particularly affected after hearing this; she panicked, thinking her mother was being tortured. This caused Deborah to acquire many catastrophic physical and emotional afflictions. During every agonizing occasion of Deborah’s torment, the reader senses the urgency, panic, and confusion of the family. This is where Skloot steps in to assist Deborah and her family to understand better the science behind the secrets.
The moral versus medical battle found deep inside Henrietta’s story will continue to raise more questions than answers. There is a striking component to Skloot’s writing that hypnotizes readers so that they crave more information about the events. The captivating and challenging topics that arise in the pages of Skloot’s book should remain for years to come on the minds of medical professionals, students, professors, and anyone intrigued by moral questions.