Bookshell-f: ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’

“Henrietta’s cells have now been living outside her body far longer than they ever lived inside it … She’s simply called HeLa, the code name given to the world’s first immortal human cells — her cells, cut from her cervix just months before she died.”

On Jan. 29, 1951, with nowhere else to turn to seek treatment for his wife’s pains, David Lacks drove his wife, Henrietta, to John Hopkins Hospital; the only institution in their area that would treat a poor, black, tobacco farmer. Nine months later, Lacks’ family lost her to a fight with cancer, while the world of medicine continued to grow her cells by the thousands. The real hitch? Her family wouldn’t learn about this for more than 20 years afterward.

In the New York Times Bestseller, author Rebecca Skloot recounts the events leading up to Henrietta’s death. As you flip the pages, it’s almost as if that motion turns back the hands of time. Instead of a pristine hospital room filled with beeping monitors and motorized equipment, you land in a cold room, in the colored ward, with a terrified Henrietta who’s about to learn that she has cervical cancer — a concept the mother of five will never truly understand. The only thing that Lacks knows is that she has a painful “knot in her womb.” So, when the doctors suggest that she be treated with the use of radium tube inserts, she agreed, even though the practice, which was shown to reduce the size of tumors, also proved to have caused cancer in the first place.

At that time, it was customary for doctors to experiment on their patients of color, especially if they had limited means to pay for their treatments. It was during this period that two samples of Lacks’ cells were extracted from her cervix and given to George Otto Gey, a cancer researcher at the hospital. Gey and his team then began the routine task of labeling and conducting tests on the samples. Though, unlike every other batch that died after multiplying for a set number of times, Lacks’ cells continued to grow, producing the first naturally “immortal” cell line known as HeLa after the first letters of her full name.

Since then, Lacks’ cells have been sold to researchers around the world helping to find cures for numerous diseases like AIDS and polio, and forge advancements in the areas of gene mapping, cloning and radiation. Lacks’ cells have revolutionized the world of science, though most don’t know her name or her story. What’s more, Lacks’ family has never been compensated for their loss or received any money from the proceeds of the sale of her cells. Sadly enough, Skloot documents that Lacks’ kin can’t even afford health insurance more than 50 years later.

Though you will experience moments of joy, laughter and discovery while reading this book, it won’t leave you with a heartwarming feeling. Instead, you’re likely to have a burning desire to share Lacks’ story, a goal which Skloot seems to share with Lacks’ family. Lacks’ legacy lives on — literally. Isn’t it time we know her for the woman that she was, instead of a collection of impersonalized HeLa cells? Pick up a copy of “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” and meet a mother, wife, sister and a woman, who through unimaginable pain, birthed the reality that we have the honor of living today.

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