This blog is now retired. My new site is at: Predictably Irrational.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

This is a partial review.

I stopped reading it at page 144 of 328 (the afterword).

It is _interesting_ but certainly bored me after I understood the story. I know I will be missing the aftermath: the ethics behind this and how the family wound up with nothing...or maybe there was a happier ending that I will miss *but* can catch up on, on wikipedia.

Nonetheless, the book was hard for me to pick up and I dreaded thinking about trying to get through it. I dreaded it for days before I finally decided to put it down and give up.

Before it got tedious to read, however, it was soooo good. The first few chapters had me hooked. I was close to declaring my love for it on twitter but decided it was too early and the "what if i end up not liking it?" crossed my mind.

Essentially, the story, which is actually a work of non-fiction based on interviews, medical records and letters, is about a woman named Henrietta Lacks. We learn about her life in Virginia, starting the year she was born in 1920. She grew up with her dad's family, who dropped her and her eight siblings off and went his own way.

Eventually, she would have children, and marry, her cousin Day because, apparently, that's what went on back in the day.

In 1951, Henrietta would go to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, a place she and Day and their children lived after leaving Virginia. There, she would be diagnosed with cervical cancer. The treatment? Sewing tubes of radium into the tumor and wrapping it with gauze to keep the radium in place. Wow.

Before the radium procedure, two dime sized samples would be taken: one from the tumor, the other from her cervical tissue. The sample from the tumor would be a significant, magnificent turn in medical history: it would be the first human tissue cells ever to divide.

And they divided, and divided, and divided. These cells are what the medical world deem "immortal": they never die. As Skloot states in the Prologue:
There's no way of knowing exactly how many of Henrietta's cells are alive today. One scientist estimates that if you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they'd weigh more than 50 million metric tons - an inconceivable number, given than an individual cell weighs almost nothing. Another scientist calculated that if you could lay all HeLa cells ever grown end-to-end, they'd wrap around the Earth at least three times, spanning more than 350 million feet. In her prime, Henrietta herself stood only a bit over five feet tall.
They were named HeLa cells, for the first two letters of her first and last name and forever became enshrined as these cells without attachment (until this book) to the woman herself.

Henrietta would die of her cancer very soon after the diagnosis in 1951. The book continues down the path of Skloot going to Clover, Virginia, where Day and Henrietta grew up together, interviewing her relatives.

It also explains how much Henrietta's cells have helped with medical advances including helping to find a cure for polio. While medical professionals made money, and earned high praise and recognition, through her cells, the family received nothing.

It is a great book, full of fascinating information, that had me glued for the first many pages. But the drone of scientific research on the cells was doing me in; and the trip to Clover and talking to relatives was going to slow for my taste.

Fortunately, the rest of the world. As of today, it is #2 on the New York Times bestseller's list and I am pretty sure it hit the list sometime last year, when the novel came out. It's definitely worth your while to read, if not for the fascination of how this came to be.

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