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Book Review: THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS (Rebecca Skloot)

I loved every single thing about this book - Henrietta, her family, author/journalist Rebecca Skloot, the amazing science of the story and how one obscure woman contributed so incredibly much to modern medicine. Everyone should know a little bit about Henrietta, or HeLa, and overall, the story is so readable that no one would feel intimidated.

Literary Corner Cafe reviewed the book, and because I felt the same about it, I asked permission to share the blogger's review. Why duplicate effort when LCC said it so well?

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the story of many things: cancer, racism, medical ethics, the effects of poverty on medical care, and most of all, the story behind the prolific “HeLa” cells and the real person who unknowingly donated them – Henrietta Lacks. The book’s author, science journalist, Rebecca Skloot, first heard of Henrietta Lacks when she was a sixteen-year-old student and a biology instructor mentioned Lacks’ name and skin color to her (Skloot) but nothing else. Skloot, however became curious about the person, Henrietta Lacks as well as “HeLa,” and she spent ten years researching and gathering material for her book, with much of that time being spent gaining the trust of Lacks’ family, who, for good reason, are skeptical of any Caucasian and anyone even close to the medical profession.

Henrietta Lacks, the great-great-granddaughter of slaves, began life in her grandfather’s cabin on a poverty-stricken tobacco farm in Clover, Virginia. She was, according to those who knew her, a lovely woman with “walnut eyes, straight white teeth, and full lips.” She was fun, and she was fun to be around. Her cousin, Emmett Lacks, describes her as the “sweetest girl you ever wanna meet, and prettier than anything,” and that’s exactly how she comes to life in the pages of Skloot’s book.

By early 1951, Lacks had moved from Virginia and was living in Baltimore, Maryland. She and her husband had five children and Mrs. Lacks was suffering from what she termed a painful “knot on my womb.” The only place a black person could obtain medical treatment in 1951 Baltimore was at Johns Hopkins. Mrs. Lacks checked into their charity ward and was promptly diagnosed with cervical cancer. She was given painful, scarring radium treatments, but before the first one was administered, the attending physician, without asking permission from Mrs. Lacks and without even informing her, cut two dime-sized pieces of tissue from Lacks’ cervix – one that was cancerous and one that was healthy. The doctor then gave the tissue samples to George Gey, a scientist who had been trying to establish a continuously reproducing, or immortal, human cell line for use in cancer research. Lab protocol dictated that that an abbreviation of the donor’s name be written on the tubes. Mrs. Lacks’ cells thus became known as “HeLa” for her first and last names.

Previously, no human cell line had survived outside a human body, but “HeLa” succeeded where all other human samples had failed. Mrs. Lacks’ cells not only survived, they prospered and multiplied with lightning speed. It was later discovered that they contain an enzyme that prevents them from automatically degenerating like most “normal” cells do. The “HeLa” cells, due to this enzyme, are thus capable of dividing and multiplying forever, rendering them “immortal.” ...

Click here to read the rest. Thanks again to Literary Corner Cafe.

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