Saturday, 3 December 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta LacksThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is one of those great non-fiction books that reads like a novel because it tells a gripping human story. Rebecca Skloot leads the reader back and forth in time to reveal the horrible, wonderful life of Henrietta Lacks.

At first, the book seems to be a tale about the power, importance and blurred ethics of medical research. What makes the book heartbreaking is that it also contains a family saga about race, poverty and the loss of a mother.

Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed and treated at Johns Hopkins University. During her illness and at the time of her death, cell samples were taken. For some reason, these malign cells became the first cells to keep on dividing and growing in culture. These immortal cells were dubbed “HeLa” after the first syllable in each of her names.

The cells’ immortality was special because it allowed doctors and scientists to do continual, advanced research on the treatment of hepatitis, AIDS, polio, cancer, and many more diseases. They also provided a tool to study cloning and gene mapping.

We are in Henrietta’s debt.

The problem is that Henrietta did not give her consent for these cells to be taken, and a multi-million dollar medical industry has arisen around them. As well, Henrietta’s family did not find out about her cells until twenty years later. The family has not financially benefited from the research, and questions about their mother’s cells, more often than not, went unanswered. Even more distressing to her children is the idea that part of their mother is still alive and being subjected to research. Seeing how Henrietta’s children grew up without their mother adds to the poignancy of the book.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was on many top books of 2010 lists, and for good reason. It contains all the best ingredients: the wonder of science, the miracles of life, and the love of family in a well-written personal narrative. And, oh yes, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks made me believe in angels.

p.s. If you are wondering what happened once the book ended, here’s a link to an update:

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