Back before the holidays, I asked my friends on Twitter for book recommendations. I wanted something new to read over the holidays when we were doing some traveling. Someone recommended this book. It wasn’t my first choice (I wanted something more light and fun) and I didn’t download it right away, but when I did, I was hooked and didn’t want to put my Kindle down.
“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” is about Henrietta Lacks, an African-American mother of five living in the Baltimore area in the 1950′s. Henrietta started to get sick with numerous symptoms when she was in her late 20′s. She was sent to the hospital nearest to her, Johns Hopkins. It turned out that Henrietta had cervical cancer and passed away from her cancer, which quickly spread throughout her body, at the age of 30. During her treatments (which made me really glad I didn’t live in the 1950′s – some of the cancer treatments just sounded horrible), her doctors removed cells from her cervix. Those cells have, in a way, made Henrietta live forever.
Henrietta’s cells were found to be very unique, like no one had ever seen before. They quickly multiplied and didn’t die like other cells did. These cells, named HeLa, were “breeded” and in the past 60 years, have been distributed across the world and have been used in some of the world’s most groundbreaking medical research. Her cells are still alive today.
This book is not all about science. Author Rebecca Skloot tells the story of Henrietta through her family that is still living. Skloot spends years tracking down family members, doctors, and others who know about Henrietta and the HeLa cells, but Deborah Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter, is the one that Skloot forms the closest relationship with, although it is a rocky relationship. Skloot reveals how the family didn’t know for years that Henrietta’s cells were special and being sold and they were hurt and upset and felt entitled to some of the profits, especially since her family was struggling financially.
The story was told in such a way that Henrietta’s story, her family’s stories, and the science of the cells was interwoven, which kept my attention. I’m not really a science person, but the scientific parts were explained in a way that was easy to understand and kinda made me want to learn more about the topic outside of this book. Skloot even touches on the debate about whose property human cells are – the “donator”, or the hospital/doctor/researcher. I’ve never thought about that issue before and it makes you think more about what happens when your blood is taken or if you get a biopsy or some other procedure. The personal struggles of Henrietta and her family also were very interesting and sad.
Rebecca Skloot does a great job of pulling all of her research together to tell this story. And I just also have to say how surprised I was when I saw she was from Pittsburgh! Pittsburgh was mentioned a few other times throughout the book; the doctor who discovered HeLa’s immortality was originally from Pittsburgh as well. ”The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” has been named to a bunch of different “Best Books” lists and I think it totally deserves it. I’d have to say this was one of the best books I’ve ever read.