Sunday, June 28, 2020

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

"I don't want to be immortal if it mean living forever, cause then everybody else just die and get old in front of you, while you stay the same, and that's just sad  But maybe I'll come back as some He La cells like  my mother, that way we can do good together out there in the world ... I think I'd like that"  - Deborah Lacks

I don't read as much non-fiction as I probably should and so about six months ago I started looking around for a non-fiction book that had received alot of critical acclaim.  In the end I went with The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot published 2010 and I made a very good choice.  

So who was Henrietta Lacks?  She was an African-American woman born in Roanoke Virginia in 1920.  Her family were tobacco farmers.  She married and moved to Baltimore, Maryland with her husband in the 1940's.  They had five children.  As her cousin Hector would later recall: 

"Everyone liked Henrietta ... always smilin, always takin care of us when we come to the house ... Even after she got sick, she never was a person who say 'I feel bad and I'm going to take it out on you'.  She wasn't like that, even when she hurtin.  But she didn't seem to understand what was going on.  She didn't want to think she was going to die".

Tragically, Henrietta Lacks died in 1951 at the age of 31 from an aggressive form of cervical cancer.  But before her death, doctors at Johns Hopkins without her knowledge took a sample of her tumor for research.  It was standard practice back then.  Patients were not always informed.  

Henrietta's tumor samples were given to Dr George Gey who was the head of tissue culture research at Johns Hopkins.  For decades scientists had been trying to get human cells to stay alive in culture but it never worked. The cells ended up dying so when Dr. Gey received Henrietta's tissue samples he wasn't expecting much.  But Henrietta's cells didn't die.  They continued to divide and multiply at an astounding rate becoming the first cells that could reproduce indefinitely, an immortal cell line, the He La cells:

"They have helped with some of the most important advances in medicine: the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization ... if you could lay all He La cells ever grown end-to-end, they'd wrap around the Earth at least three times, spanning more than 350 million feet"

Yet for a long time Henrietta's family knew none of this.  Partly the reason no one told them is that many in the scientific community didn't know who the donor of the cells were.  Some thought the original donor was named Helen Lane but no one was sure.  Eventually Henrietta's name did begin to get published and in the late 1960's researchers needed to locate her family.  A problem had developed with the He La cells and they needed the family's DNA to do more research.  So the doctors arrived at the Lacks home wanting to do a blood test..  

As Rebecca Skloot states in the book, this was the first time the Lacks family was hearing about Henrietta's cells and they were confused and worried.  Was Henrietta herself still alive?  Did they want to draw blood to test for cancer?  None of this was true of course but the doctors didn't do a very good job of explaining and misconceptions arose.  Deborah with children of her own was worried that she would die from the cancer her mother had.  After the blood was drawn she called John Hopkins repeatedly trying to find out if she had cancer but they never got back to her. 

As the years went on the Lacks family found out more about Henrietta cells as reporters came around. Also a man claiming to be an attorney gained the Lacks' trust but he turned out to be a con man.  And so by the time Rebecca Skloot a young science reporter showed up wanting to tell Henrietta's story the Lacks family was guarded.  They had been burned before by people they trusted.  

But Rebecca was persistent.  She had been fascinated by Henrietta's story since she was sixteen when her biology teacher started talking about cell division and the importance of the He La cells.  Deborah, Henrietta's  daughter, who was two when her mther died also wanted to learn as much as she could about her mother.  Deborah was in her 50's and in poor health when Rebecca came calling but the two formed a close bond as they uncovered the details of Henrietta's life.  

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an important book because without it we would not know who she was and the important contribution she has made to medicine.  I'm not very good with science but the author explains it well and it's also a book about medical ethics, racism, poverty, faith and it's a book about family.  I found the Lacks family members that Rebecca interviewed very interesting and inspirational  They have been poor all their lives but they are survivors with alot of wisdom to share.  In 2017 HBO made a film of the book starring Oprah Winfrey and Rebecca Skloot has set up The Henrietta Lacks Foundation to help Henrietta's children and grand children with health insurance and tuition for school.   I think Henrietta would be pleased.