Monday, May 27, 2013
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman who found out she had cancer in the 1950's. At that time there was still a lot of segregation. In fact she had to go to the John Hopkins hospital because of her skin color. The doctors took some of the cells from her cervix to see what they were, and of course they found that they were cancerous. As doctors do, they kept some. Soon one doctor, George Gey, discovered the unusual qualities of these cancer cells. They grew and stayed alive outside the body. Which up to that point, had been impossible in almost every single case they had tried. The cells were named from the first two letters of the patient's first and last name, and so they became called HeLa. HeLa cells are so well known in the science community, and for the longest time, no one knew who they came from. You see, at that time, lots of research occurred without the patients ever knowing they were a part of it. This is one of those cases. The things that HeLa was used to help, creating a Polio vaccine, etc., the list is long and amazing. Where these cells have been, the fact that they are still alive and growing more over 60 years after Henrietta's death, well that is only part of what was so intriguing about this story.
Henrietta and her family themselves are an interesting group. The things they've suffered through, the things they've overcome, it was very worth reading. The family had been left out of the loop, had no idea exactly what was going on. When doctors came back to take blood samples from the rest of the family later on, the family assumed it was to see if they carried the cancer she had. In fact, the daughter, Deborah, was so scared when she got close to the age when her mother died, that she even started calling trying to find out the results. But that hadn't been what they'd taken the blood for. And so of course, they didn't have those answers, and had no record of any test results for the family. Later on they even had a con artist say he was trying to help them get what they deserved. This family without much education heard things from him about how their mother's cells had been cloned, or combined with plant cells, or animal cells, and they thought there were actual clones of her walking around, or hybrid creatures that meant Henrietta must be suffering.
So when the author of this book, Rebecca Skloot, tried to get in touch with Deborah, and other members of the family, she had a really hard time getting them to trust her enough to even talk to her. And even then, one small thing could set them off and make them again lose trust and decide not to talk to her anymore. The journey of this family, Henrietta's cells, and the author to find and share this story is one worth reading. I read this while on vacation, and it didn't feel like I was reading something for school, it was like reading a fascinating biography.
If you have any interest in science, or biographies, or even of how medical issues have changed, this is a book that I think you'll find as intriguing as I did.