I was assigned to read “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot for my book club; I wasn’t sure about the choice and was worried that I wouldn’t be able to read it fast enough for the next book club meeting, but was told in no uncertain terms by the pregnant woman in my little book club that this was her choice and that it might be the last book she would have time to read for several years.
And thus I started “The Immortal Life Henrietta Lacks” and fell in love with it instantly. For those who don’t know, the book is the true story of Henrietta Lacks who died of cervical cancer. Her cell tissues were taken from her and started spontaneously regenerating and became the subject of medical science testing for years afterwards. But the story doesn’t end with Henrietta, Rebecca Skloot describes the challenges that Henrietta’s family faced after her death and includes a detailed examination of bio-ethics and whether patients should be informed about what their cells are being used for or compensated for the sale of the cells.
Rebecca Skloot does an extraordinary job of describing Henrietta’s family in ways that portray them as real people who were dealt extraordinarily tough hands in life; the story of her children’s life isn’t pretty. After Henrietta’s death, a woman jealous to Henrietta when Henrietta was alive moved into Henrietta’s house to take care of Henrietta’s children. As you might imagine, there were significant amounts of child abuse that took place, including child molestation by the woman’s boyfriend.
As Henrietta Lacks’ children suffered, the HeLa cells thrived. What the medical community actually did with the HeLa cells was amazing in some cases and hugely unethical in others. HeLa has been used to create cures to grow corneas and to developing the polio vaccine; some believe that HeLa might just be used to find a cure for cancer.
The cancerous HeLa cells were also injected into prisoner’s arms to see what would happen. The “volunteer prisoners” were asked why they had volunteered and most said they were repaying their debt to society or repenting for their sins. The same doctor who was responsible for injecting the prisoners with HeLa cells did the same thing to his unwitting gynecological patients years later.
But Henrietta’s family received no compensation for any of this and knew very little of what was happening with their mother’s cells for years to come.
As adults, the children were reluctant to talk about HeLa, the name for their mother’s cells; some family members believed that the lack of compensation they received was the result of racial discrimination against blacks and viewed the medical community as an Us versus Them, meaning Blacks versus Whites.