The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks ~Rebecca Skloot
Our book group got together for Valentine’s dinner and to discuss this book. It was an inspiring discussion and the book and author brought up a number of things that each of us as women could be grateful for and celebrate; it also brought us to quite a discussion of health care, research, pharmaceuticals and profit margins in the US as they related to women’s health.
At first I found the book a bit intimidating as Skloot is a journalist, science writer and there was a great deal of scientific study and information to sort out, but she wrapped this story about duplicating cells around the life of the woman who contributed this line of cells to research. Those HELA cells have made invaluable contributions to scientific research and have contributed to the health of many people and to the pocketbooks of some.
It took Skloot more than 10 years to research and write this book and the two story threads contained within the covers. When Henrietta Lack arrived at the John Hopkins Clinic in Baltimore, she was a young, poor child of southern poverty and little education. She and her husband and children moved to the Baltimore area to work in the steel mills and to “better” themselves. During her 5th pregnancy Lacks developed rather severe pain in her abdomen, which turned out to be a cancerous cervical tumor and ongoing syphilis. She was a generous and loving young woman, always ready to help others. Being of color she did not receive the same care as Caucasian women and was not educated enough to know what she was signing and communications were not good. She died a very painful and agonizing death.
The lab doctor routinely took cell samples in order to study the outcomes, and as amazing as it was Henrietta’s cells became the clue to unlocking the door to numerous medical discoveries and a great deal of research. They have travelled far and wide – even to the moon. Her children were left with no mother, caregiver, or provider; their father brought in a very violent woman to care for the children and she wrecked even more abuse on them.
The second story line is about what happened to Lacks’ family and especially her children. It was told through her daughter Deborah’s experience and understanding of what happened. The family was treated in horrendous fashion by a number of callus researchers and companies. They could not understand why they could not get health care or education and one even worried about compensation for the tissue gift that their mother contributed to the future of medicine. They were abandoned and left confused until Rebecca Skloot took an interest and began her research.
It is a book once started very, very difficult to put down and set aside either on the shelf or in your mind.
How many other people have given so much and made so many people so wealthy or healthy?
Skloot does not shy away from the moral and ethical questions in this book at the same time telling the story of the HELA cells and their contribution.
Once I got into the book, I found it very difficult to put down. I thought it was marvelous to be reading about this gift from a young black mother to the world during Black History Month here in the USA. Then when I considered all the wrangling going on about Women’s Health in the news these days, it made the study of the book even more timely and potent. Lots of politics involved then and now.
I would highly recommend you take a few moments and read this book, part of the proceeds from the book go to help the grandchildren and great grandchildren of Henrietta Lacks get health care and education.
Do you know an unsung hero? Can you share the name and/or the contribution?
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This book is from my own collection and no one paid nor did I receive any compensation for reviewing this book.