There was a time when I wanted to pursue the career of every major fictional character I came across, and this includes Bruce Wayne’s nocturnal career, and being a cardiologist or someone in the field of medicine was very much on my mind. We all know the likes of Robin Cook and his works on medical mysteries, and he managed to keep up almost every night. I kept going to the school library for more, one after the other. I remember Toxin and I still shudder to think that we’re actually in such close contact with bacteria and virus, and contagions of every possible kind. But the book I want to share with you today is not from the fictional drawer, but the non-fiction.
Thanks to Goodreads, I happened to stumble upon The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Henrietta Lacks was a poor, black tobacco farmer who had cancer. Her cancer cells were taken without her knowledge and soon, they led to the development of a fast growing industry, worth millions. Lacks’ cancerous cells from her cervix are in some way still alive, having been sold, bought, packaged and shipped to numerous laboratories across the world. Her cells were the first human cells in zero gravity on the first mission to space, they were used in making polio vaccines, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and so much more.
Skloot came across HeLa cells (as doctors refer to it) during her community Biology class, and she learns how in 1951, Henrietta died from a vicious case of cervical cancer. Her surgeon took samples of her tumour and kept them in a petri dish.
Toward the end of her treatments, Henrietta asked her doctor when she’d be better so she could have another child. Until that moment, Henrietta didn’t know that the treatments had left her infertile.
It had been a long time since scientists had been trying to keep human cells alive in culture, but they always failed. But Henrietta’s cells were different. They never stopped reproducing. A Biology textbook, as quoted by Skloot, mentions how the HeLa cells have been reproducing in culture since 1951.
Henrietta’s family was not told of the amazing quality of her cells, and it infuriated them how they were not being given sufficient information while permissions were being sought for research and the like. They realized how everybody made millions of dollars, but some in her family did not even have health insurance.
The book brings together a lot of debatable topics such as ethics, and infuses them with issues of race and class. Skloot tracks down Henrietta’s family and helps them understand the immense legacy behind the cells and how beneficial it has really been to humanity, while supporting them in their legal battles.
I loved this book and I cannot imagine where all of us would have been without our medicines, our vaccines, and the like. And we all have Henrietta and her doctor to thank. While the scientists may have chosen the wrong path, I believe that Henrietta Lacks should be remembered, and while her cells continue to live on, so should her memory.
This post is part of the eighth annual A to Z Challenge that takes place in the month of April. The theme for this month is ‘Between Pages’. It’s my second attempt at this. Feedback is most welcome, constructive criticism, even more. Share your experiences and let’s enjoy this month of fabulous blogging.