I know you’re all starting to wonder how I got so side-tracked from my usual reviews of children’s books. Well, I do have a few of those in the hopper, so keep watching, and they’ll appear eventually. Henrietta Lacks was a choice of my local library’s book club. Usually, the group’s choices seem to tend toward the really creepy murder/crime/thriller/psychologically disturbed vein. Okay, I can’t actually think of a way to describe the usual books, except to say that last month’s selection, Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn, was so creepy that I had to give up reading it for fear of having nightmares. So, my relief was great when The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was selected. No nightmares, but a lot to think about.
Henrietta Lacks was a poor black woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951. If her story had ended there… well, there wouldn’t have been a book written about her. However, it just so happened that cancer cells removed from her body became the first “immortal” line of cells. The availability of cells that would reproduce indefinitely allowed scientists to make discoveries leading to the development of the polio vaccine, research into treatment of cancer and AIDs, and many other medical advances. Rebecca Skloot does a nice job of describing the contributions of the HeLa cells to modern science without losing the rest of us in the minutiae. She intersperses scientific breakthroughs with the her quest to meet Henrietta’s family and to find out more about this woman who unknowingly changed the way we live.
While HeLa cells were revolutionizing medicine, the Lacks family was suffering with poverty, and an inability to deal with, or even understand, the impact Henrietta’s cells were making. In the 50s and for many years thereafter, it was commonplace for doctors to take human tissues without considering the patient’s interests and certainly without requesting the patient’s consent. The family’s feelings of helplessness and confusion are the human side of this story that has long been ignored.
At some points the book was a hard read. Not because the story lost interest – it didn’t – but because it some parts were just too painful to take in all at once. For instance, the chapter describing what had happened to Henrietta’s oldest daughter, Elsie, in the mental institution where she spent the last few years of her life and died alone, was eye-opening and horrifying. I won’t go into the details here – truthfully, I’m not sure even I have it in me to describe them. You’ll have to read the book yourself. And you should. It’s completely worth it.