Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Rebecca Skloot: February 2 2010

Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cancer in the 1950s. She was a patient at Johns Hopkins hospital, which offered medical services to the poor. After returning to the hospital for a couple of outpatient procedures, Lacks lost her battle. She died at age 30 in 1951, leaving 5 children and a husband. She was black, uneducated and her death was slow and painful.

All of this happened at a time when researchers had been unsuccessfully trying to grow live human cells in laboratories. Because patients like Henrietta Lacks received services for free, it was understood that they would give any tissues and samples taken from their bodies to the hospital for research.

This was understood by the hospital, but not by the patients.

The doctor who examined Henrietta took a sample of her cancer cells marking the sample with the phrase "HeLa". These prolific cancer cells grew like crazy in the laboratory and before researchers could catch their breath, they had batches and batches of cells available for research. Today, you can buy HeLa cells for a few dollars. They have been used in AIDS research, cancer research, vaccination research. In short, these cells revolutionized modern medicine.

The first part of this book is delicious. It is informative and eye-opening. This is the kind of writing that can spark an obsession: the next thing I knew, I was hanging out in the Biology section at the library, grabbing books like I was picking berries. I googled until my fingers hurt.

Then came the second half. The author inserts herself into the story as she chronicles her relationship with the family of Henrietta Lacks, primarily Lacks' daughter, Deborah.

Rebecca Skloot tries to portray this family as poor, dignified black people that had been taken advantage of by indifferent (or outright malicious) doctors and scientists. This portrayal falls apart as she tells the family story. Lacks and her husband were first cousins and she got pregnant with her first child at the age of 14. Her developmentally disabled child was institutionalized before Lacks' death. After, no one visited the girl, not even her father. Her children at home were molested and physically abused, one of her sons spent his adult life in and out of jail. All of this is presented in the book as if the tragedies in this family have something to do with Johns Hopkins using the cells.

It was unintentionally funny at times, when Skloot and others tried to explain scientific concepts to Lacks' offspring and they would burst out with a bizarre (even disturbing) question that clearly showed they weren't understanding.

Comparisons to the Tuskegee Syphilis experiments are inaccurate and Henrietta Lacks, who did not choose to get a fast-growing, invasive cancer, is not another Rosa Parks just because she is black.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks raises questions about bioethics, and the future of medicine. Then it became another, somewhat bizarre story about her children whose story was definitely less remarkable. I turned the last page thinking that what came out of her death was perhaps the brightest part of her life.

It's like the Christmas story, where people who are at the bottom of society (a "virgin" girl and her tiny baby) suddenly become the most important people in the world.
This is the biography of a face in a crowd who becomes extremely important to the well-being of the human race. If this story was fiction, the plot would seem contrived: "lame" even.

But that's how truth works sometimes.

1 comment:

Luxembourg said...

I hoped this book would tell the amazing story of the life of a seemingly insignificant woman who lives on through her cells, and continues to contribute perhaps her greatest achievement, helping science unlock the keys to diseases. It should have been about how this woman touched every life in the modern world and made their life better.