Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Even though I always gravitated toward language arts in school, two of my best high school classes were biology and anatomy, both taught by the same fantastic teacher. She made the science of life and the human body fascinating and accessible in a way I hadn't thought possible before. In college I took biology again, hoping for an experience similar to the ones I'd already had in high school. Sadly, I barely made it out of that class alive and most of my classmates had the same experience. Our professor, bless his heart, was not much older than most of us and looked absolutely terrified to be lecturing 60 women.

However, the college class notwithstanding, I'm still curious about the human body and the miracles that are possible within it. For my first graduate school class I was fortunate enough to get into an elective course just days before the semester began called Gender and Medicine. All semester long we explored women's access to and experience with receiving health care with regard to race, religion, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, geography, medical insurance status, mental capacity and many other factors. With a few weeks left in the semester, each student had to choose a disease or medical experience present for women and explore the topic for our final paper. I chose to cover forced and coerced hysterectomies, and never before had I been sucked into a research topic like this. I started to read everything I could get my hands on, and as the due date of the paper loomed closer and closer, I had to stop researching and start writing. The result was a paper that more than doubled the size of any I'd written for a rigorous undergraduate English program.

I imagine Rebecca Skloot must have been inundated with and overwhelmed by the information she uncovered when she began researching Henrietta Lacks, a young mother who suffered from an extremely aggressive case of cervical cancer in Baltimore in the 1950s. Without her knowledge or consent (or that of her family), her surgeon extracted cancer cells for research purposes, grew them in his lab and sold them to scientists all over the world before Lacks' children and husband found out just over a decade ago.

Skloot has written a fantastic book, certainly in top five of all I've read this year so far called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I think my favorite thing about this book, besides trying to understand the gall of some members of the medical community and patients' rights, was how Skloot inserted herself into the book. This made it a much more real story. There was no way after Skloot described the personality traits of Lacks and her family members, that this book would have worked if it had a clinical feel to it. And, Skloot's relationship with many members of Lacks' family are such a huge part of the story that it just seems a no-brainer that that stuff should be included.

Read this book. 

1 comment:

  1. So glad you liked this book. I felt much the same when I read it, and I couldn't believe how accessible Rebecca Skloot made the topic. I am also impressed that she devoted 10 years to getting the story right.