When I first picked up The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, I expected it to be a fictional tale along the lines of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (which would have been fine because I LOVED that book!). But my misconception was brought to my attention very early on. In the first couple pages the introduction discusses how this is in fact a true story based on Henrietta Lacks, her family and how an unfortunate incident benefited the medical world so greatly.
Henrietta Lacks was an unknown name in the medical community, even though her cells were a part of some of the greatest discoveries in medical history. If you asked anyone in the medical field, they would be able to tell you how miraculous and HeLa cells where in their industry. But they were unaware of where these cells came from, and Henrietta’s family made it their mission to let the world know it was their mother/wife/sister that were behind those cells.
When Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cancer, she was unaware of what that meant. Henrietta was a proud black woman, but in 1940’s black people were still being treated as second class citizens. Without Henrietta’s knowledge, her cancerous cells were removed from her body and studied at great lengths.
Henrietta’s cells were the first cells ever recorded to survive after being removed from their host and would continue to grow. This changed the face of medical research and modern medicine.
With the use of HeLa cells, the polio vaccine was created. “Demand for the HeLa cells quickly grew. Since they were put into mass production, Henrietta’s cells have been mailed to scientists around the globe for research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, and countless other scientific pursuits. HeLa cells have been used to test human sensitivity to tape, glue, cosmetics, and many other products. Scientists have grown some 20 tons of her cells, and there are almost 11,000 patents involving HeLa cells.”
This story is pieced together by Henrietta’s family, with the assistance of scientific writer Rebecca Skloot. She writes about Henrietta’s past and how her family has spent countless years searching for answers behind their mother’s death and what happened to her. A family that couldn’t afford to see a doctor themselves are fighting to find out what happened to their mother from doctor’s who were getting rich of their mother’s cells.
Rebecca Skloot’s difficult attempt at helping this family and telling their story is courageous and honourable, especially when the family didn’t make it too easy for her. But it is understandable when you discover what the family has gone through over the years.
This story is moving, horrifying and eye-opening. Even though what happened to Henrietta was inexcusable, because of that doctor illegally taking her cells, countless people would have died without them.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I am sure you will to!