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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks


I knew that I needed to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, when I first heard about it, but part of me was hesitant. I was worried that the “science” would be beyond me but no fears! This book is beautifully and clearly written and had so many personal recollections for me, that I became immersed in it. I was describing the book to a friend and she said, “It sounds as though you don‘t want this book to end.” An astute statement, as it turned out. When I finished it, I just closed and held it for a while, going back in my mind over certain passages. It took me longer than usual to let go and move on to the next book in the ever-growing stack next to the bed. Basically, the story is about a poor black woman who is diagnosed with cervical cancer at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Scientists had been trying unsuccessfully to grow cells for some time. This woman’s cells were collected routinely (as with other patients), but her cells did grow. And they grew so successfully and so rapidly, that those cells were soon sent world wide to scientists studying a multitude of diseases. Those cells were known as HeLa (for Henrietta Lacks), but the story behind these cells was lost until author Rebecca Skloot began her research.

Skloot’s book focuses on Henrietta and her family. The children were young when Henrietta died and adults when Ms. Skloot became involved. A lack of trust of the medical system hampered her work initially, but she won the trust of the youngest daughter, Deborah, who wanted her mother’s life known and appreciated. Part of her was proud that her mother’s cells had been used in so much important research, but another part of her resented the fact that neither her mother nor the family had ever been told about the cells, nor was permission to use her cells ever given (or requested). Actually the same thing happens now; when we submit to a biopsy, our cells are no longer ours, but belong to the hospital or clinic where the work is being done. A yet-to-be resolved ethical issue.

At the time of her early death, Henrietta lived in a section of Baltimore County called Turner Station and her spouse worked at the Bethlehem Steel plant in the neighboring section called Sparrows Point. Skloot’s description of that area took me back to my first visit there, as a young social worker for Baltimore County. The mill was closed by then, but everything in the area was still covered with red dust from the iron ore. The ghostly structure of the defunct mill made me think of something out of Dickens’ England. Turner Station itself was still inhabited by African American families that no longer worked for the steel mill; many were on public assistance, stranded there when the jobs dried up. Their stories were similar in many ways to Henrietta’s family story; times were good when the mill was open and jobs were plentiful. Once the mill closed, these folks were stuck way out in no man’s land, far from the central city and far from jobs. The family story is one of poverty, mental illness, alcohol and drug abuse and criminal activity, with a few successes in each generation. Skloot has written of the family with respect and empathy. It’s little wonder it was a New York Times Bestseller; it’s a good read.

~Diane Snell

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