The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Reviewed by Alexandra Triantafillopoulos

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“It’s true…whenever we read books about science, it’s always HeLa this  and HeLa that. Some people know those are initials of a person, but they don’t know who that person is. That’s important history.” Christoph Lengauer Hopkins researcher  p.266 

This nonfiction book is a story about Henrietta Lacks and HeLa, the first human immortal cell line grown in culture  named after the first two initials of our true to life heroine’s name.  The scientific legacy of these cells  have contributed to various  medical breakthroughs such as the development of the polio vaccine, in vitro fertilization, cloning and gene mapping just to name a few. HeLa cells are used around the globe in scientific laboratories and have travelled as far into space by Russia’s second Soviet satellite and  NASA’s first   manned mission alike. The irony is that Henrietta was never made aware that her cells were being used in research , her family members  never benefitted in healthcare costs incurred from HeLa cell research  and Henrietta never lived to see what has now become a multimillion dollar  industry.  Skloot’s book has  an enormous run on the New York best selling list and has been opted for a movie adaptation  by Oprah.

Ten years in the making, author Rebecca Skloot helps to fill the gaps in history of an era where the “C” word was not discussed , let alone to the economically disadvantaged and to minority groups such as  patients  of  African American descent. To argue her case, Skloot brings up the Tuskegee syphilis study (sponsored by the U.S. Public Service to not provide life saving penicillin to African American men with syphilis), Mississippi hysterectomies performed on economically disadvantaged African American women to stop reproduction and as a means of practice for physicians, and lack of funding for sickle cell anemia ( a condition predominantly found in African American populations). The merit in raising these issues in her book serves to demonstrate the legacy of segregation with the resultant working    conditions and racial  inequalities of the African American community.

This is depicted quite clearly where the story begins  in 1951 when Henrietta Lacks, an African American women native from Virginia, walks into  Johns Hopkins Hospital and   is  examined in a colored-only exam room separated by full view  glass walls.  From the time of her initial visit to her treatment, attending physician  Dr. Gey  grows cells taken from her cervix  which continue to survive to this day. Unfortunately months later after her biopsy, Henrietta   who was a poor southern tobacco farmer that  worked the same land as her slave ancestors dies at the age of  31 leaving five children behind. The entire medical experience   described by Skloot brings Henrietta at the intersection of race, gender and class issues. For instance,  the doctor who initially  examines Henrietta is surprised that she has an understanding of changes in her own body which reveals a resistance on the doctor’s part of Henrietta’s own verbal agency (p.17). The inconsistencies of her medical chart also reflect similar views and it is clear how poverty and class also affected her treatment with no continuity of her care. At the time, Hopkins was the only proximal hospital that would accept  African Americans. Hence the social context of this period no doubt shaped expectations which influenced outcome of health care.

This book has been described in various genres such  as a biographical history, medical /investigative journalism , narrative nonfiction and/or a  scientific history. Skloot provides not only a scientific narrative but also one that is historical and language specific ( with respect to using dialect) . What provides merit in this book is that Skloot  draws on primary sources for her interviews to provide narrative accounts for Henrietta’s childhood and life. She eventually develops a relationship with the Lacks family especially surviving daughter Deborah who also struggles with what really happened to her mother. After all, Henrietta Lacks was only identified publicly in 1971 as the original  source of HeLa cells. Therefore this book also raises ethical issues of patient rights, access to medical care,  informed consent and protection of privacy. On the same note the conversations that Skloot conducted with Lacks family members and their initial mistrust  when approached by Skloot   also reveals a clash in cultures. Against the backdrop of African American experimentation in the Tuskegee  study and the complete chance encounter from a  neighbor’s relative ( working at the NIH ) who informed the Lacks family  of HeLa, distrust was inevitable.

For some readers the switch  from the historical past to the present mixed in with  science and culture might be viewed as a flaw , which might be intentional of Skloot.  If we are left with no complete answers it is because the author beckons us for more questions. Others might also consider that Skloot projects her own ideas and thoughts which might be deemed as non-historical, however out of her genuine respect for the Lacks  family, Skloot attempts to give the reader a complete historical context of the period she is discussing for her subject matter. Skloot also  takes  the reader one  step further by providing some sensory histories.  Various visits to  original colored ward at Hopkins, the medical record office and hometown sites transports the reader back to a time where race, class and gender were issues of much strife. If we speed fast forward,  Skloot ends her book by arguing that  the Henrietta Lacks story is a reminder to all of us that inconsistencies in the name of scientific progress continues to exist.  By making the story of HeLa reader friendly on the topic of science , Skloot  invites the reader to understand that this  is not a story that is confined to Henrietta alone, but to the rest of us as well.

In her book, Skloot reflects if going after the historical truth about  HeLa actually created  more harm than good. Overall, Skloot manages to balance testimonial information from both parties involved with regards to information provided by  the scientific community and Lacks family. She also avoids stereotypical characterizations of all participants in her book and would rather present the subject matter with an objective lens. Skloot also recognizes that re-writing  Henrietta’s history also exposed details of personal family histories that were not easily forgotten such as impoverishment, illiteracy and abuse. By presenting the reader the story of HeLa, Skloot is also framing a dichotomy between the injustices the Lacks family has endured versus the success of an immortal cell line that  until recently  had no name.  What Skloot has also demonstrated in her book is that both the present and the past are  connected with the history of the Lacks family. To paraphrase Deborah sentiment on her mother, watch out you ain’t seen nothing yet! As Sonny (Henrietta’s son) also explains “I don’t want to cause problems for science . . . I’m proud of my mother and what she done for science. I just hope Hopkins and some of the other folks who benefited off her cells will do something to honor her and make right with the family.”

 

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