Monday, July 4, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

"It's not fair! She's the most important person in the world and her family living in poverty. If our mother so important to science, why can't we get health insurance?"

Henrietta Lacks is responsible for the polio vaccine. She helped create the HPV vaccine, and numerous other medicines and cancer treatments. And she did it all after she died in 1951. While she was at Johns Hopkins Hospital receiving treatment for cervical cancer, a sample was taken from her tumor that never died. The cells are still growing and reproducing today. And her family had no idea until decades later.

Reporter Rebecca Skloot tells the amazing story of Henrietta's life, her death, and her family. While people were making millions selling HeLa cells (named for the first letters in Henrietta's first and last names) to labs around the world, her children were struggling to get by. This is a remarkable story and one I think everyone would benefit from reading. It's not just the story of one woman's incredible legacy, it's also the story of what it was like to be a black patient in Baltimore in 1951. Henrietta's cousins believed that doctors from Johns Hopkins were kidnapping black people off the sidewalks at night to do medical experiments on them. It's the story of a family coming to terms with the fact that their mother was possibly the single most important person in medical science in the last century.

For a good part of the book Skloot tells about trying to get to know the Lacks family so she can include their perspective in the book. She meets a wall of distrust from the Lackses, until she is able to befriend Deborah Lacks, Henrietta's only living daughter. Once Deborah begins to trust Rebecca, the story really starts to come together. Deborah begins to move from being angry over the fact that her mother's cells were taken without permission, to just wanting people to know who her mother was. That's this book.

Abby read this book before, but I don't know if she ever wrote about it because I couldn't find her post in the 3 minutes I looked for it before I started writing. But I picked up this book mostly because she recommended it so highly, and I'm glad she did. When we got the book in at my library I thought it sounded kind of science-y, but most of the book was focused on Henrietta's family. I would recommend this book to anyone. It's a great read, and a fascinating true story.

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