The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is one of the most unique stories in its nature and controversial in its evolution. Reading the book was a journey through history, social injustice and modern day medical research.
Unsung heroes have become a common theme for African-American literature and movies in the modern age. The Help, Hidden Figures and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks focus on the black struggle and unsung women who helped changed the world.
The story of Henrietta Lacks, a black woman from Baltimore, now famous for her cervical cells that have been used to create treatments for diseases, is a sad one. She was a young woman who developed cervical cancer in the 1940's during the height of segregation. Lacks had no idea we would be talking about her over 60 years after her death in 1951. Her impact on medical research will never be forgotten since her cells were used to create medications for Parkinson's disease, lactose intolerance and sexually transmitted diseases and many more. Those cells are still used to this day.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was a hard read for me. I spoke with other African-American readers of the novel and found the same to be true for them. Henrietta Lacks was not just an unsung hero but she was a victim of the science industry. Doctors committed institutional slavery by stealing her cells, assigning a scientific code (HeLa) and used them for decades after her death without permission from her or her family. The book was written by Rebecca Skloot, a white Jewish woman who didn't understand a lot about institutional racism or the black movement prior to her research to write this book. Skloot developed a bond with Lacks daughter Deborah in her quest to investigate the truth behind her story.
The lifespan of Lacks cells, (which are explained medically in the book) is a testament to the strength of the African-American culture. The community has taken a lot and continues to thrive no matter what kind of tests and trials are bought up against it.
The author refers to her professor who notes that Lacks cells have lived outside of her body longer than it lived inside if her and that billions of her cells are likely preserved on ice in a lab somewhere.
Those small details are not what makes this story controversial and sad, it’s how the doctors obtained the cells, Lacks relationship with her husband and the signs that were missed in her illness that could have saved her life.
Henrietta Lacks wasn't a science scholar or highly educated. She was like many women in the post war era who wanted to find a good husband, have babies and be a respected woman in the community. Lacks had all those things with the exception of her husband who had a wandering eye. Modern day medicine suggests that Mr. Lacks could have played a role in her illness since he gave her STD's on numerous occasions causing her infection, pain and discomfort in the same area where she'd later develop cancer.
Mr. Lacks wasn't the only thing that failed Henrietta Lacks. Johns Hopkins, one of the most respected medical institutions in the country, was a part of the injustice and questionable medical treatment she received. The hospital was the only one in the area that treated black patients, but it was also the hospital where doctors decided to extract cells from Lacks without permission. Her daughter Deborah, who was a toddler at the time of her death, collected many details over the years about the story of her mother and what she told family during the time of her illness.
Henrietta Lacks knew for several years while she was giving birth to her children that something wasn't right in her reproductive area. At age 29 she even became her own gynecologist by doing some brutal self-examinations at home to uncover the problem, a hard cancerous mass. Lacks decided to go to the doctor once things were getting out of hand.
Johns Hopkins doctors were the ones who stole the cells and didn't listen to the patient. Current laws would entitle a family of a patient with stolen cells and possibly malpractice in her cancer treatment to a large sum of money. Henrietta Lacks family spent years in poverty, barely making ends meet. The family didn’t have any idea her cells were being used for decades while the medical industry gained grants and millions of dollars in medical research dollars.
The use of her cells was good for the advancement of medicine. If the family had been paid and proper permission was given, it would have been a very positive advancement. The truth is that Henrietta Lacks was treated like property and her family cheated out of payments. After years of research and the author’s work on the book, the Lacks family is still on the quest to find out more details about the cells use and possible financial gain, if they can get any. The book is great, but the institutional racism within the story is disgusting. This young woman’s cells were used and her medical history exploited. After reading this story I am sure there are others like her from the era of segregation and a lack of respect and equality for African-Americans.
Overall I’d recommend reading this book, but as a warning to African American readers, you may be alarmed upset and outraged at the many injustices that happened to Henrietta Lacks and her family.