Cover To Cover…‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’

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When the doctor said you needed a booster shot, it made you wince.

You’re all grown up and you know that a vaccine is nothing but a poke, a sting, and lots of protection. No big deal.

So why is there a little kid part of you that wants to wail when the needle approaches your arm (or worse)?

ImmortalLifeHenriettaLacks

Few people ask for shots, but if you’ve ever been treated for hemophilia, leukemia, the flu, Parkinson’s disease, an STD, lactose intolerance, appendicitis or dozens of other illnesses, you owe big thanks to one woman who never volunteered to help you. Read more in “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot.

Born in Roanoke, Va. in 1920, Lacks grew up in the Jim Crow South, dropped out of school in the sixth grade, and had her first child by age 14. The boy’s father, a man who later became Henrietta’s husband, was her first cousin.

Though she’d sometimes complained about and saw doctors for an abdominal “knot,” it wasn’t until after the birth of her fifth child that she was hospitalized for pain and bleeding. Prior to that, doctor’s notes indicated nothing amiss, but it was then that a cancerous tumor was found on the side of Henrietta’s cervix.

In great pain, burned by radiation, and wasted by disease, Henrietta died in October, 1951. But long before she did, someone had taken several thin slices of her tumor as a matter of course, for use in the lab.

What researchers discovered astounded them.

Although “normal” cells die after a certain time, cancer cells belonging to Henrietta Lacks didn’t. Her cells, dubbed HeLa, actually grew and were durable beyond anything scientists knew. Within months after Henrietta’s death, her cells were growing around the world, used for research, and grown again.

But the life and journeys of HeLa cells is only part of the story.

Though science gained vast knowledge about the human body and disease thanks to Henrietta, the Lacks family was late in learning that her cells were alive and being used for experiment and profit. Details were withheld, explanations were often incomplete, and misinformation was common. New laws were written because of Henrietta Lacks, and lawsuits were filed. And the family still fights for better recognition of her contributions to the world.

If you’re looking for a story that will shock you, amaze you, and anger you more than a little bit, pick this one up. For you, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” is definitely worth a shot.

(“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot, c.2010, Crown, $26/$32 Canada, 370 pages, including notes)

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