Friday, February 24, 2012

The power of HeLa

Continuing with my aim to provide you with a content-rich blog – as opposed to just stories of what’s going on in our lives – I have a question for you: have you read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks? If the answer is yes, it’s likely that you’re a blog reader who recommended this book to me last May. I’m pleased to say I finally got around to reading it. If the answer is no, get thee pronto to a bookshop – or even better, your local library – and read it. It’s fantastic.

Henrietta Lacks was a black woman who died of cervical cancer in the 1950’s, when the world of medicine was a very different one to what it is today. Part of that is due to Henrietta, though, in that it was her cells (known as “HeLa”, after the first two letters of her first and last names), which first grew and replicated in a lab, providing the opportunity for scientists to do testing, create vaccines and cure diseases. What wasn’t so obvious to those scientists, however, was that HeLa cells once belonged to a person, and that person left behind a family, many members of which never even knew their mother.

This book, falling into the genre of creative non-fiction, reads as easily as any fiction novel I’ve ever read – I laughed and I cried, but I also learned something and thought hard about the issues it brought up: the rights of patients, the commercialization of cells and tissue cultures, how a person lives on after death, the lack of a socialized health care system in the US, oral history, how much medicine and civil rights have progressed in the last 60 years…those are all pretty big issues, but it was all the intimate family-related part of the story-telling that made this book such a joy to read. Rebecca Skloot went on a heck of a journey to write this book, and thank goodness for her readers, and for Henrietta Lacks’ family that she did. This book is a wonder, and I highly recommend it!

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