"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks"

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

My goodness, what an great story. A fascinating combination of science and personal interest. Far better, and quite a bit different, than what I was expecting. And now I really must get back to writing in complete sentences.

Henrietta Lacks died at the age of 31, just a few months after being diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of cervical cancer. A wife, and mother of 5 children, one just a few months old, her family didn't find out until 20 years later that her cells were being used for research at laboratories all over the world. Those cells, labeled HeLa from the first two letters of both her names, had been reproduced millions of times and were responsible for some of the most important medical developments of the century.

Rebecca Skloot spent ten years doing thousands of hours of research and interviews with Henrietta's family and doctors in an attempt to make her story public. She manages to explain the science in a way that is fairly easy for a non-scientist to understand and still tell the deeply personal story of Henrietta's family. Most of her family contact was with Henrietta's daughter Deborah, who put her off for a long time because she and her brothers felt they couldn't trust anybody to tell them the truth.

This book raises a lot of ethical questions about the use of human cells without the patient's permission. Who owns those cells - the patient, the family, the researchers who use them to advance medical science, or the corporations who multiply them millions of times over for sale at a profit? It also takes a realistic look at the suffocating effects of poverty and the lingering consequences of slavery and discrimination on black families even now. It's not always an easy story to read, but it is worth it.

I had read a few unflattering reviews that suggested the story was being told for the sole purpose of making the family some money, but I can't see how that is accurate at all. The family doesn't seem to have received anything, a situation I still have reservations about. So much benefit has come from Henrietta's cells, yet her family couldn't afford medical insurance to pay for needed procedures. Is that right? I don't know, but I'm glad I read the story. I met some great characters who have given me a lot to think about.    

Hope you'll check this one out!

1 comments:

Christine said...

I love this book so much! Our biology teacher makes her advanced kids read it, which I greatly appreciate as an English teacher.

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