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Book Review: “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”

Posted Dec 07 2012 7:00am

Happy Friday everyone! Did you know that it’s possible for adults to contract strep throat? Because it is. And I have it. Seriously, only I could end up with strep throat as a 23-year-old!

The only good thing to come from this strep business is that I have gotten quite a bit of reading in over the past couple of days. I managed to finish up a book that incorporates three things that really interest me – research on cancer, ethical decisions involving medical queries, and the inequality of healthcare in our country. All very social work-y , huh? And all related to oncology social work, which will (hopefully) be my specialty area in graduate school next year.

“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot captured my attention more so than any book that I have read recently. Not only was it engaging and interesting, but I feel like I learned so much! Skloot tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, a woman whose cells posthumously changed the face of scientific research.

The catch? Henrietta didn’t give her cells voluntarily – and her families never saw a dime from the millions upon millions that were made off of HeLa cells. In fact, they faced their own healthcare issues and were often unable to pay for them. Skloot spent years meeting family members, tracking down old medical records, journeying through the family homestead to learn as much as Henrietta as she could.

Her goal? To personalize the woman behind HeLa, what many scientists have dubbed the most important line of cells in scientific history. The cells, taken from Henrietta’s tumor shortly before she died, have helped to develop the polio vaccine, contributed to cancer and cloning research, and were influential in learning how to genetically map a cell. In short, they have been the birth of some of the most important medical discoveries of the 21st century.

The story of Henrietta and her family is one of heartache. Along the way, Skloot discovered a family that has been deeply wronged by the system – and yet a family that perseveres. Though the book is primarily about Henrietta’s children and grandchildren, there are also long sections of the book about some of the scientists and researchers who were involved in the HeLa cells. These scientific morsels are sprinkled throughout, making a book that is both engaging and enlightening all at once.

Is this book only for people who are interested in cancer or medical ethics? Absolutely not! In fact, this is a great book for anyone who is curious about their own medical rights and the scientific research process. I know one thing – I am now much more educated about the rights to my own cells and body! Overall, I loved this book and will be quick to recommend it to anyone. I will certainly carry my newfound knowledge forward, both in my social work practice and in my own life!

Have you read any good books lately? I have some spare time now that school is done, and plan to fill it with books!

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