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)?
Few people ask for shots, but if you’ve ever been treated for hemophilia, leukemia, the flu, Parkinson’s disease, an Sexually Transmitted Disease, 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 (c.2010, Crown, $26/$32 Canada. 370 pages, including notes.)
Born in Roanoke, Va., in 1920, Henrietta Lacks grew up in the Jim Crow South, dropped out of school in the sixth grade, and had her first child by age fourteen. The boy’s father, a man who later became Henrietta’s husband, was her first cousin.
Although she’d sometimes complained about and saw doctors for an abdominal “knot,” it wasn’t until after the birth of her fifth child that Henrietta was hospitalized for pain and bleeding. Prior to that, doctors’ notes indicated nothing amiss, but it was after that delivery 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.
Although 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 today, the family still fights for better recognition of her contributions to the world.
Mixing science and medicine, African American history, racial issues, and a journalist’s enthusiasm, author Rebecca Skloot writes of extreme patience and doggedness in pursuit of the truth about a woman who went anonymous for way too long.
Skloot is a fantastic storyteller, and her sympathy with the Lacks family surely gives this book a different feel. I very much enjoyed how she wove the Lacks family’s personal history with medical sleuthing, cultural touchpoints, and the kind of persistence that makes a great book like this.
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.