Book Review #4. If You're Healthy And/Or Alive, It May Have A Lot To Do With A Poor Black Woman You've Never Heard Of.

Because if you're healthy and/or alive, chances are you've benefited from medical research at some point. Maybe you've never contracted polio. Maybe you did contract a nasty infection of some sort and were cured with an antibiotic. Perhaps you had a lab test that saved you from an agonizing death. If so, you can probably thank Henrietta Lacks, a woman who did die an agonizing death from cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in 1951. You probably don't know why you should be thankful though, and if it weren't for Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks, which I finally got around to reading last week, you probably never would.

The book is the story of how a slice of Henrietta's tumor, taken without her knowledge or consent as she was dying, became the HeLa cell line, the first human cells to be successfully grown in culture and the foundation for a plethora of medical research. Henrietta's cells have been sent into space, blasted with radiation, infected with who knows how many pathogens and continue to this day to be a workhorse of science. There are more than 17,000 patents based on HeLa cells, and you can spend anywhere from $100 to almost $10,000 on HeLa products for your own science projects if you're so inclined.The family will get none of that though, and no one even bothered to tell them any of this was happening. Think about that for a second. Someone took a piece of your mother, grew her in a lab and now parts of her are bought and sold all across the globe. And no one bothered to tell you. The family had no idea for 22 years. They found out when one of them had a chance conversation with a man who worked at the National Cancer Institute. "I ordered them from a supplier just like everybody else" he said.

The book is far more than a tale of science however. Let me be clear. While it took me forever to open the book after I ordered it, once I did I couldn't put it down. It reads like the best of fiction while pouring knowledge into your head whether you realize it or not. Ever wonder why there are so many African-Americans in Northern cities when slavery was an institution of the south? The Great Migration is probably the most significant event you'll never read about in an American History book, but you'll see it illustrated here as Skloot traces Lacks' ancestry from the plantation through the modern mean streets of Baltimore. You'll be taken back to a time when doctors could be both humble enough to make their own lab equipment and arrogant enough to purposely inject patients with cancer cells just to see what would happen. You'll gain a perspective of how utterly horrifying mental institutions were a generation or two ago and of what life is like for today's urban poor. There are a million subtle lessons in this book, none of them uninteresting.

Most important though, are the lessons in humanity as you follow the Lacks family's struggle to understand and come to terms with what happened to Henrietta. At one point a researcher who used HeLa cells to develop fluorescence in situ hybridization, a technique Skoot says "to the untrained eye simply creates a beautiful mosaic of colored chromosomes," presented a giant print of Henrietta's cells to her daughter, Deborah. Henrietta had died before Deborah had any memory of her, and "more than anything" she said earlier in the book, she wanted to learn about her mother and what her cells had done for science.

"You know what I really want? I want to know, what did my mother smell like? For all my life I just don't know anything, not even the little common little things, like what color did she like? Did she like to dance? Did she breastfeed me? Lord I'd like to know that. But nobody ever say nothing." 

Deborah's brother, Zakariyya, spent time in jail for killing a man and struggled to deal with violent tendencies his whole life. "Maybe her cells have done good for some people, but I woulda rather had my mother. If she hadn't been sacrificed, I mighta growed up to be a lot better person than I am now." He told Skloot.

You are now properly set up for this excerpt:

Deborah stood from the bed where she'd been sitting with her grandsons' heads in her lap. She walked over to Zakariyya and put her arm around his waist. "Come on walk us out to the car," she said. "I got something I want to give you."
Outside, Deborah threw open the back of her jeep and rummaged through blankets, clothes, and papers until she turned around holding the photo of Henrietta's chromosomes that Chistoph Lengauer had given her. She smoothed her fingers across the glass, then handed it to Zakariyya.
"These supposed to be her cells?" he asked.
Deborah nodded. "See where it stained bright colors? That's where all her DNA at."
Zakariyya raised the picture to eye level and stared in silence. Deborah rubbed her hand on his back and whispered, "I think if anybody deserve that, it's you, Zakariyya."
Zakariyya turned the picture to see it from every angle. "You want me to have this?" he said finally.
"Yeah, like you to have that, put it on your wall," Deborah said.
Zakariyya's eyes filled with tears. For a moment the dark circles seemed to vanish, and his body relaxed.
"Yeah," he said, in a soft voice unlike anything we'd heard that day. He put his arm on Deborah's shoulder. "Hey, thanks."
Deborah wrapped her arms as far around his waist as she could reach and squeezed. "The doctor who gave me that said he been working with our mother for his whole career and he never knew anything about where they came from. he said he was sorry."
Zakariyya looked at me. "What's his name?"
I told him, then said, "He wants to meet you and show you the cells."
Zakariyya nodded, his arm still around Deborah's shoulder. "Okay." he said. "That sounds good. Let's go for it." Then he walked slowly back to his building, holding the picture in front of him at eye level, seeing nothing ahead but the DNA in his mother's cells"

That is world-class wordsmithing my friends, and it's exactly what you'll find throughout this book. Buy it, borrow it, whatever it takes, but read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I suspect the only people who won't get anything out of it are the illiterate, and maybe those with Alzheimer's. And after the people with Alzheimer's are cured with the help of HeLa cells, they'll be able to enjoy it as well. Which is a little freakishly ironic when you think about it.

Anyway, read the book.
Share on :
Book Review #4. If You're Healthy And/Or Alive, It May Have A Lot To Do With A Poor Black Woman You've Never Heard Of.
Book Review #4. If You're Healthy And/Or Alive, It May Have A Lot To Do With A Poor Black Woman You've Never Heard Of.
Reviewed by malaria
Published :
Rating : 4.5