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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?

This book is available at POWELL’s and Amazon Also on KINDLE

If you purchase anything from this blog from Amazon or Powell’s I will receive a few beans in my bucket.

I would so like it if you shared this review – push that ol’ share button, please!

This book is from my own collection and no one paid nor did I receive any compensation for reviewing this book.

Related Reading:
Unfinished Business
Trust What You Get
The Smartest Woman I Know
Four Great Books To Add to Your Reading List

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8 Responses to “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks ~Rebecca Skloot”

  1. Talon Says:

    Sounds a truly fascinating book, Patricia. Thank you for your review. You always give such thoughtful and thought-provoking ones.

    Patricia Reply:

    You are always so generous with your praise…this book is extremely interesting and it certainly provoked a huge discussion in our diverse group of women.

    I was so glad it was chosen for us to read, because I probably would not have done so. The book is also available from our local library for digital download ( but then the family would not get funds from the book – so I purchased it)

  2. Laurie Buchanan Says:

    Patricia – It’s hard to pass on a book once you read:

    “It is a book once started very, very difficult to put down and set aside either on the shelf or in your mind.”

    Thank you for the recommendation.

    Patricia Reply:

    This book just stays with me – it is very well written and instructional.

    I think you would find it a good book to add to your list

  3. susan Says:

    Hi Patricia!
    As always, the BEST reviews are found right here! :) Seriously you should be getting paid for your reviews! (and I don’t mean just the beans from Amazon!)
    Unsung heros? They’re everywhere!
    susan recently posted..Laundry Alert – Soft, perfumed clothes can be making you sick!My Profile

    Patricia Reply:

    YES! I do too think I should be paid more than beans for my reviews…I do often get a free book, which I have 5 in the mail at this time.

    I just read a book review yesterday that told me so much of the plot and story line, I do not need to spend my money on purchasing a copy. The characters were so described that my mind could not conjure…

    I also just put up the books I liked….I have finished 4 over the last month that I am not writing about…

    I have had 2 of the college professors who had me review books for tours and Amazon – tell me directly that they wished I had had a first run at the book ….Maybe this will manifest?

    I am still having trouble getting a Barnes and Noble ad up too, they do not approve me. I have tried to get a job there the past 9 Christmases and they never take me on…We have lots and lots of little alternative book stores here, but they usually hire kids.

  4. Sam Juliano Says:

    The issues covered in the stories of this book are obviously vital and would assist in the perceptions of many who are confronted head on with these matters. I’ll admit I don’t know it, but would better off if I did, and I applaud the wonderful group discussion that emanated from this reading.

    Sorry to hear about that job policy at Barnes & Nobles, which is silly for a number of reasons. The closest Barnes & Nobles to where I live recently shut down, due no doubt to on line sales that is slowly eliminating in person options. Sad.
    Sam Juliano recently posted..1926 – Best Picture, Director, Short, Actor & Actress – RESULTSMy Profile

    Patricia Reply:

    Hi Sam,
    Yes the discussion was pretty spectacular around this book and ll the shenanigans going on in this election year. Women’s health is a mighty important issue for me – and all those folks making money off someone else

    Ignorance is not bliss. Rights can quickly disappear or become too expensive

    I also heard the Secretary of Education interviewed on The Daily Show and was intrigued to hear of what is going on in that arena currently…what a folly and how hard teachers have to work these days.

    I am with the demographers on this one – any high school drop outs is too many….let’s teach folks to problem-solve and think!

    Our B&N affiliate Borders went out of business too…I think many things are moving to the internet.
    Thank you for your comment and visit – much appreciated