I was mesmerized by this book.
In 1951 Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman suffering from severe abdominal pain and bleeding, entered Baltimore’s John Hopkins Hospital, where the wards were still segregated, and the care of Black patients was rumored to be inferior to that accorded Whites. Baltimore’s Black community even claimed that Hopkins kidnapped people in the dead of night, right off the city’s streets, to serve as unwilling subjects of gruesome research projects. Unsurprisingly, Black patients like Henrietta went to Hopkins only when they were critically ill or dying.
Henrietta was quickly diagnosed with an aggressive form of cervical cancer. During her radium treatments, cells from Henrietta’s cervix were harvested and given—without her true understanding, her family would later maintain—to Dr. George Gey, a Hopkins researcher who was trying to create the world’s first line of immortal cells, or cells that could regenerate themselves indefinitely.
Dr. Gey was successful and the HeLa cells were born. The immortal HeLa cells became a medical miracle that would give rise to life-saving drugs like the polio vaccine and various cancer therapies.
Within weeks of her entering Hopkins, Henrietta died, and her name was quickly lost to history. Some later articles said her real name was Helen Lane, but there was little immediate interest in discovering the true identify or life story of the woman behind the HeLa cells. Her husband and children were left uninformed even as to her diagnosis and had no idea what happened to her during the autopsy that Dr. Gey performed.
At the heart of Rebecca Skloot’s story is the desperate longing of Henrietta’s children to know who their mother really was. Skloot focuses on daughter Deborah, who has only a lock of her mother’s hair, a treasured possession that she keeps in the family Bible. Deborah pursues obtaining official recognition of her mother’s contribution to science and worries that her mother’s cells experience pain in the research she imagines as inflicted upon them.
Henrietta had been born in Clover, VA, in the home-house that had served as her ancestors’ slave cabin. She was a wife, a loving mother to four children, a woman who adored dancing, and a caretaker in both her family and her community. In her life, her greatest journey was from Clover to Baltimore’s Turner Station neighborhood, but her cells would travel to outer space on rockets, studying the impact of space travel on human beings.
The HeLA cells were harvested and grown just before the birth of the Civil Rights movement, and at the confluence of so many issues: healthcare parity for impoverished, minority, and disadvantaged patients; medical privacy; and especially, informed consent. Her husband and children have long maintained that Henrietta never donated her cells. They wonder why her cells could jump start a multi-billion-dollar industry, while they themselves could never even obtain health insurance. Most poignantly, they struggle even to pay for the hearing aids they need to treat their congenital deafness.
Fans of nonfiction and medical science histories will love this book. I certainly did.