Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: I

Author Rebecca Skloot with her best selling book.

This review is the first installment of a five part analytical series. Enjoy dolls.
HeLa cells are different. They reproduce everyday, an entire generation and never die, thus becoming the very first immortal cells ever to be grown out of a laboratory. However, this ironically is not the intriguing part, or at least it wasn’t for me. I found myself thinking: Well where did they come from? Cells have to come from someone right? So who did the cells belong too? Cells are live organisms that are extracted from a living person and cultured in a lab in order to be used, reused, regrown, sold, and thence experimented on. Before the 1950’s medical scientists did not have reproducing cellular organisms and so they had no way of developing vaccines for diseases such as cancer, polio, or syphilis. That is unless they tested the hypothesized ‘vaccines’ on live human subjects, which frankly was not unheard of during the 1950’s. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells a story that is unlike anything I’ve ever read. Rebecca Skloot, the author, first heard the story of the HeLa cells in a community college biology class. Were Donald Defler, her instructor gave Skloot the first fragment in a puzzle that would unravel her entire knowledge of her world around her as she understood it. Skloot had received a name, one name: Henrietta Lacks. So she persisted questioning Defler about his knowledge of Henrietta Lacks she asked, “Where was she from?” “I wish I could tell you,” he said “But no one knows anything about her?” I was truly and utterly appalled by this revelation. They’ve used her cells to solves nearly a dozen or more diseases, know the “every quirk” of her cells, and yet know nothing of the person. That to me, was shameful in its own right.
Skloot’s vivid imagery succeeded the dry wit lased in her prologue and managed to turn her biography into something entirely different. Like Henrietta’s cells I was about to find out that Skloot was unlike any biographical writer I’d ever encountered before. By the sixth page I’d started grinning because by the last brilliantly written paragraph I was captured. I felt this emotional connection tying Deborah – Henrietta’s daughter –  and I together. We are much alike, Deborah and I, if it had been my mothers cells and they’d been immortal than I would have liked to know, I would have liked to be involved. The one thing that gripped me about Skloot’s writing was her unpredictably stark truth. For instance, I’d be reading, falling into the grove of the words and then out of nowhere Skloot would throw a sentence at you that you couldn’t have seen coming with binoculars. She’d say; “Patient was one of ten siblings. One died of car accident, one from rheumatic heart, one was poisoned…” and suddenly I stopped reading, mid-sentence just to stare at the words. “Poisoned…”


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