The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot | Nonfiction |
ISBN: 1400052173 Global Overview for this book
Registered by istop4books of Castle Rock, Colorado USA on 12/30/2010
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1 journaler for this copy...
Journal Entry 1 by istop4books from Castle Rock, Colorado USA on Thursday, December 30, 2010
Currently reading.

Journal Entry 2 by istop4books at Mankato, Minnesota USA on Thursday, January 13, 2011
Henrietta Lacks, married at 14 to her first cousin, Day, contracts cervical cancer by the age of 30 and goes to Johns Hopkins hospital to have it treated. It's the early 1950's. Rosa Parks has not sat in the front of the bus yet and poor, uneducated blacks don't stand a chance at getting decent treatment or respect anywhere. Sad, but a true story, Henrietta is bounced around by several doctors, receives so much radiation that her upper body is burned black. Her questions are not answered and she doesn't have the knowledge to even know what to ask or to demand straight answers. Parallel to her stays in this research hospital, scientists are close to being able to keep cells alive in the lab, but haven't succeeded. At some point during Henrietta's surgery, cell samples are removed from her diseased cervix and sent to Dr. Gey's lab, for one more half-hearted attempt at growing cells. This time, not only does it work, but Henrietta's cells explode in the lab, doubling and re-doubling and multiplying like nothing they've ever seen. Of course no one bothers to inform Henrietta of this detail, or explain the significance of this to her or her family. Nor did they have the obligation to do so. Waste matter belonged to the hospital and those doing research with it. Henrietta dies young, however her cells were used around the world by just about every researcher out there. They were called HeLa cells. They were given away, sold, traded and used in the research of polio vaccines, aids, cancer, and many other areas of medical research.

Great! Without these cells perhaps we'd still be in the medical 70s. So where's the story? Skloots pretty much just presents the facts and allows the reader to come to her own conclusion. Should we be paid for the bits and pieces that are removed from our bodies? Cysts, appendixes, gall bladders, moles? Should we be informed that these will be used, sold or given away? I think we can all have our personal opinions on that matter.

But what about sharing medical records without our consent? Publishing our names in medical journals or publishing our medical records after our death? What about using someone's blood for something other than what we've given consent for? Or keeping patients and their families in the dark, not deeming them smart enough to give them the time of day and explain things in a language they can understand? The arrogance of the medical community is bared throughout the book.

At the same time, we get an amazing look at Henrietta's family. With no more than an elementary school education, infected with syphillis, battling poverty, racism, ignorance, the legacy of slavery, hopelessness - we get to know Deborah, Zacarryya, Sonny, Lawrence - Henrietta's children, and my heart breaks for them in all their irrationality and ignorance. Deborah especially is obsessed with learning about her mother. But they've been lied to, cheated and bamboozled by so many people that they trust no one. The children don't understand the concept of cells, they don't know if their mother is somehow alive and cloned, if she's half woman, half tobacco plant - there's just no concept in their head to help them understand these HeLa cells.

The glimmer of hope in this book lies with Henrietta's great-grandchildren. Right about when I was starting to wonder about the purpose of these lives, I got the to Epilog and felt there might be hope for the future of the Lack descendants.

Totally readable - actually parts of it read like a bizarre novel. Highly recommended.

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