The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks’s is a nonfiction book written by Rebecca Skloot that looks into the life of Henrietta Lacks an African-American woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951 at the age of 31. Before her death, her doctor illegally took put a sample of her cancer cells, and under observation, it seemed like they took on a life of their own reproducing energetically something that had never been seen before. The cells later named HeLa after the first two letters of Henrietta's names became a scientific marvel traveling all over labs in the world and unbeknownst to her; Henrietta took care of the family while undergoing numerous radiation treatments until her eventual death (Skloot, 2011). The writer Rebecca Skloot first came across the name Henrietta Lacks as a teenager in a college classroom and was amazed at the lack of information regarding this woman who was essentially the godmother of virology. Sometime in the late 1900s, Skloot came across some papers published in a symposium regarding HeLa cancer control and sought out her family.
The curiosity that embedded the writer was determined to give a voice to a woman who gave so much and changed the state of modern medicine while so little is known of her life. The resulting book saw the combination history of the HeLa cells and the history of Henrietta and her family. Research into her life revealed that Henrietta was not aware of the importance of her cells and without any doctor ever telling this, no historian felt bothered to learn of the life and times of Henrietta or her family. After tracking down her family, she finds that they are hostile to the idea of having another reporter going after the story of their family member and her famous cells (Skloot, 2011). It turns out that the family only came to realize that their mother had made headlines in the medical world over twenty years after her death.
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It took a long while for Skloot to earn the trust of the family before she could embark on her project. She finds an ally in Deborah Lacks, Henrietta's daughter who agrees to fill in the gaps of her mother's life. Henrietta sought medical treatment from Johns Hopkins, and she was diagnosed with cervical cancer, and she was put on radiation treatment. It was during this time that a sample of her tumor was collected. Henrietta suffered racial bias in the hospital and was placed in the colored section of the hospital even after her cells made headlines and changed the future of cancer research (Skloot, 2011).
The cell sample found a way into George Gey's lab in John Hopkins hospital who was in charge of the tissue culture department where it was grown in test tubes. The doctors at the Tissue Culture Department were trying to get cells to divide continually and infinitely to provide the scientific community with an infinite supply of human cells with which to experiment. When the discovery was made of fast regenerating cells based on the tissue sample from Henrietta, the news broke to the scientific world of the fantastic discovery, but this news did not reach Henrietta or her family. While informing the Lacks’s family would not have made much of a difference seeing as they were poor and uneducated with little understanding as the discovery being made. However, it was very neglectful of the medical community not to treat Henrietta with the very best care after the discovery they had made (Skloot, 2011).
The death of Henrietta brought challenges on her husband and their five children. They lived with relatives who abused the children from beatings to molestation. Their lives were none the better as a result of the suffering they had endured. The family realized that her mother was famous in the medical field purely by accident when a researcher randomly asked for her last name and confirmed that their mother's cells were still alive. This news broke once more and more doctors started calling on the family asking to draw their blood. The earlier researchers had made a mistake during their initial discovery, and the HeLa cells had to be contained. The need for this blood was to find the genetic markers which would keep the HeLa cells from contaminating others and keep other cell lines in place (Skloot, 2011).
Over the last six decades, scientists have grown over fifty million metric tons of her cells which are available to anyone by calling an 800 number. HeLa is responsible for the growth of many careers as well as scientific studies, publications, taking responsibility for the discovery of secrets ranging from cancer, mosquito mating, to aging. But this discovery was not without its challenges; the HeLa cells were so robust that they took over contaminating hundreds of cell lines and was responsible for the destruction of research as far as Russia (Skloot, 2011).
It was clear that the medical community had turned the HeLa discovery into a massive profit industry without the knowledge of the Lacks’s family or offering any financial aid to them. This did not sit well with the Lacks’s family because in their lack of understanding they thought that Henrietta was alive in one of these labs and was being poked and prodded by the doctors (Skloot, 2011). They also felt exploited since the hospital had profited from their mother as were the researchers who had made the discovery and they were left to wallow in poverty, uneducated and were not able to afford basic things for most of their lives. It was during her research period that Skloot was made aware of the existence of another female child by Henrietta who died in an asylum. The details as to her death reveal disturbing and painful things about her death.
Legal and Ethical Implications
The process of investigating the life of Henrietta, Skloot gives an account of illegal experiments on human subjects in various hospitals at the time and how the law struggled to ward off these practices. The book touches on studies ranging from the Tuskegee syphilis study, the infamous Chester Southam's cancer studies and tales of night doctors who snatched black men and women off the street to conduct experiments on them. Even as her work is in support of the advancements made in the medical field, Skloot paints a picture of a sector covered in racism, exploitation, and objectification of the patients who were treated as subjects rather than the patients they were (Skloot, 2011).
The research and the information gathered by Skloot gave rise to some inquiries in the medical field to give answers to the Lacks family and what her cells contributed to the scientific world and more so the research into virology. While it is not possible for the scientific community to make amends as to the damage they caused the Lacks’s family more so withholding information and not making financial contributions to them. Writing this book had the world understand the origin of the HeLa cells and more so the story of the woman after whom the cells were named. Skloot created a foundation to begin helping the family meet their financial needs, but on a larger scale, it has shed light on the story of a young African-American mother, who changed the course of research in medicine. A woman who made it possible to have numerous discoveries made that contributed to making life healthier for the rest of humanity (Skloot, 2011).
Skloot, R. (2011). The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks . Broadway Books.
Skloot, R. (2011). The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. In Beach, P R. (2010) Editor. (Eds), Knowledge Central , (643). Oncology Nursing Forum.