Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

A number of years ago, I read a book called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.  It's a fascinating story of how a young black mother in Baltimore was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951.  She was treated with the radiation treatment of the time at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and subsequently died.  Because she was poor and black, she and her family were not treated quite the same way as an affluent white family would have been.  Some of the tissue removed from her body during surgery was saved for experimentation.  There was no consent given or asked for - as would have been the case with any patient at the time. 

During the course of the examination, it was discovered that the cells from her tissue continued to live and reproduce after other cells would have died.  This amazed the researchers, and the cells continued to thrive and reproduce. This makes them of incredible use in developing new treatments and drugs - think drugs against polio, pneumonia, AIDS, etc.  Johns Hopkins gave these cells to any legitimate research facility.  And the cells still live. 

But Henrietta's family knew none of this.  Until they started to hear rumors about it and got false information, and were contacted by unscrupulous hucksters looking to make a buck.  Then Rebecca Skloot learned something about the story and decided she wanted to know about Henrietta Lacks as a person and about her family. 

This is where the story begins - and the search is fascinating.  Recently I heard that Oprah Winfrey was making an HBO movie based on the book. I subscribed to HBO just to see this movie and watched it this afternoon.  As always, the book was better, but the movie does capture the intensity of the feelings of both Ms Skloot (the white writer) and Henrietta's children.  I'd certainly recommend both the book and the movie.

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