Like many people, when the doctor hands me a consent form, I just sign it, not giving it much thought. After reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Kathryn Skoot, I think I may actually read the next one.
Many of us have heard about this book, it appeared on everyone’s “Best of 2010″ lists. Born in 1920, Henrietta Lacks grew up in poverty, working in the tabacco fields of Virginia. After marrying her first cousin and moving to Baltimore, her doctors discovered in 1951 that she had cervical cancer. Before the days of consent forms, her doctor asked if he could take a sample of her cells. According to her doctor, Henrietta and her husband said yes, and when her doctor placed her cancerous cells in a petri dish he shockingly discovered that they multiplied. They kept multiplying – they never stopped unless they were frozen
….as long as they had food and warmth, Henrietta’s cancer cells seemed unstoppable. Soon, George (the doctor) told a few of his closes colleagues that he though his lab might have grown the first imortal human cells. To which they replied, Can I have some? And George said yes.
Henrietta died from her cancer. She left behind the immortal HeLa cells that would change medical history. Less important to everyone at the time, were a husband and small children who were also left behind. Henrietta’s family never broke free of the poverty into which they were born. Since their parents were first cousins and their father had given their mother syphilis, the children began life at a disadvantage with medical issues. When their mother died and their father remarried, they were subjected to the worst kind of abuse by family members and close “friends”.
Not until 20 years after Henrietta’s death did her family discover that something had happened with their mother’s cells. But even then, not one medical professional took the time to explain to her uneducated family what cells were, and what this meant for medicine.
When Ms. Skoot began her research, she was met with reluctance from Henrietta’s famiy. You can’t blame them, though. Many people had come around over the years asking about Henrietta’s life, adding more confusion to what they believed was the truth about their mother. Fortunately, Ms Skoot had the patience and dedication to tell this story. She also took the time to introduce family members to medical professionals who were able to explain the HeLa cells in a clear and simple manner. (I was also grateful to these people, not being clear on the subject myself.)
At first, I didn’t want to read a book about medical discoveries. I just wasn’t interested in reading a science book. The Immortal Life is science at its best for someone like me who wants a good story and a history lesson. While educating me about the miracle of the HeLa cells, Ms. Skoot uncovers the life of Henrietta, her family and the medical scene several decades ago. Ms. Skoot unveils the history of Johns Hopkins Medical Center and the truth behind the rumors of the day when black people feared the employees of Johns Hopkins, believing that they snatched black people off the streets for medical research.
During Ms. Skoot’s unexhaustible search for the woman behind the cells, she developed a relationship with the family that is invaluable to the entire story. Henrietta’s daughter only wanted her mother to receive the credit she deserved. Other family members wanted some sort of compensation. The question that was continuously asked by family members was “if our mother so important to science, why can’t we get health insurance?” There was never an answer to this question.
Ms. Skoot has set up a foundation to benefit the the descendents of Henrietta with their medical insurance and education .
Henrietta Lacks’ cells were responsible for so many cures and research that we now take for granted. I’m happy Ms. Skoot is able to share the real story behind these cells. It’s important for all of us to be aware of the pain and heartache of their origins.