Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Book #2 that I chose to read off the list told me of a true story that I had never heard of before. Rebecca Skloot introduces us to Henrietta Lacks, her family and her immortal cells.
Henrietta grew up in rural Virginia as a poor, black farmer during the earlier half of the 20th century. Though she never had much, she always had a smile on her face and perfectly manicured nails. At the age of 14, Henrietta found herself pregnant with her first child. A few years later she would give birth again and soon after, marry "Day", her first cousin (and father of her children). In 1941, the Lacks family moves to Maryland where Henrietta and Day would eventually have 3 more children.
About four months after the birth of her 5th child, Henrietta visited her doctor complaining of a knot in her stomach. Her doctor referred her to Johns Hopkins for further treatment. Johns Hopkins was their only choice of hospital as it was the only one in proximity to treat black people. Henrietta's diagnosis from her doctors there came back as cervical cancer. Because of complications from other illnesses (like HPV and syphillus) her cancer would prove to be aggressive and deadly.
During her treatment, small samples of her cervix were removed without her knowledge or permission. These are the cells that would eventually become the famous HeLa immortal cell line. Skloot quickly takes you through this part of the story, to Henrietta's death in 1951 and then jumps ahead in time and introduces you to Henrietta's (now grown) children. It is through them - mainly Deborah, the 4th of the 5 children - that Skloot attempts to piece together the story of Henrietta and her famous cells. It's not an easy task as at this point, the Lacks family has been treated very unkindly by people in the medical field when it came to their mother's famous cells.
I'll be honest - this story was not what I expected it to be. I was anticipating a story about Henrietta Lacks, her life, her struggles and how she lived before succumbing to cancer. To me, this part of the story was short and relatively glazed over. The novel was heavy on scientific facts like what cells are, how they work and how research is conducted using HeLa cell lines. It also focused heavily on how our medical system was structured in the 1950's and how it progressed through the decades - especially concerning human tissue, ownership and informed consent. While this was interesting, it left me feeling bored and wondering when the story would pick back up.
As I forged ahead through the novel, I felt more and more like Skloot was mainly concerned with illustrating HOW she got the story of Henrietta, rather than actually sharing that story with us. She would mention tidbits of things she found in her investigations like what Henrietta did or how she acted but never divulged that information.
By the end of the novel I was frustrated and felt a lot more connected to Deborah than I did to Henrietta. While it was terrible how the Lacks family was treated by Johns Hopkins and the doctors involved in the HeLa cell line development and commercialization, I felt a lack of compassion for them. The constant rollercoaster of changing opinions and emotions surrounding their mother's cells was exhausting and I think it's a result of how the story was delivered.
All in all, I learned a lot about HeLa cells and how they have helped advance the field of medicine today. But, I also feel like most of what I took away from the book was about Skloot and her journey to collect this story - which was disappointing.
Rating: 4 out of 10 - Alright

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