Sometimes the only response to finishing a book is W.T.H. What.the.hey.
That was my response to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. From the history of scientific thought process, to how people (especially African Americans) were treated in the 50s by the medical field, to treatments to using someone’s cells WITHOUT TELLING THEM had me thinking non-stop about the ethics, morality and the common decency that eluded the scientific community for decades.
All the while this unknown woman’s cells were changing history and science for the better.
Just read the synopsis:
Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells—taken without her knowledge in 1951—became one of the most important tools in medicine, vital for developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and more. Henrietta’s cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown, and her family can’t afford health insurance.
Soon to be made into an HBO movie by Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball, this New York Times bestseller takes readers on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers filled with HeLa cells, from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia, to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells a riveting story of the collision between ethics, race, and medicine; of scientific discovery and faith healing; and of a daughter consumed with questions about the mother she never knew. It’s a story inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we’re made of.
Seriously. What the hey?! Everytime I turned the page, I kept thinking “no way, no stinkin way.” How different her children’s lives could have been. How could scientists not wonder about the donor? So many questions. Incredible how different those times were from today.
One page you read how “these cells have transformed modern medicine…they shaped the policies of countries and presidents. They even became involved in the Cold War.” Then a few chapters later you hear from her son ask this question: “She’s the most important person in the world and her family living in poverty. If our mother so important to science, why can’t we get health insurance?” The most disturbing question from the book.
One part of the book that might be my favorite part was that of her daughter Deborah. Her searches about her mom and sister had me tearing up on a few occasions. I can only imagine the heartache and the joys that must have come from all the discoveries. I loved this quote from Deborah: “Like I’m always telling my brothers, if you gonna go into history, you can’t do it with a hate attitude. You got to remember, times was different.” She knew that it would be hard to read about the past, but that it was also a story too important not to be told.