Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Unknown Yet Immortal

Anyone who has taken a science course that talked about cell research has probably heard of HeLa.

Most of those people have never heard of Henrietta Lacks.

I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks as part of a commitment for work over a year ago and I have not stopped thinking of it since.  This book is mind-boggling to me.

It's the story of a woman who changed modern-day science in immeasurable ways, yet who is virtually unknown....  The story of people who weren't given all of the information... The story of multiple generations of a family who cannot afford healthcare - yet whose ancestor was the root of many of today's medical treatments.

Henrietta could not possibly have known that pieces of a cervical tumor - a tumor that ultimately killed her - were removed from her body in 1951 and would be used for groundbreaking medical research.  She could not have known that because of this caner, her cells would be the first to become immortal - that even though she would die young and poor, her cells would prove to be remarkably resilient and would populate a multi-billion dollar industry.

More amazing is that her family wouldn't know any of this for more than 20 years after her death.  They didn't find out until after scientists continued researching HeLa by doing procedures on her husband and children without their knowledge. 

Rebecca Sloot took the time to sort through the story, follow the clues and cluttered paper trail, and piece together a book that reads like a good mystery novel.  She manages to throw in enough science terminology and medical history to make even an educated person feel a little lost.  And yet, Sloot's book still dwells in sentimentality.  It brings up questions of race relations, healthcare costs, medical consent, personal ownership of your own body, and ethical treatment of research subjects.  It makes us question how much control we have over our body still today and wonder if this could still happen.

I said, I read this book over a year ago and I feel like it was just yesterday.  HeLa is no longer the only thing that is immortal.  Henrietta - as a woman, as a lesson, and as a story - will also go on forever for anyone who has read this book.


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