HeLa cells. I’m sure most of you haven’t heard of them, but these cells were the basis of countless medical advances. Imagine it- the first line of cells that could grow in any medium! Don’t be discouraged if you don’t want anything to do with cells and science however; The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is much more than a science textbook. It is the story of the woman behind these famous HeLa cells- Henrietta Lacks.
Henrietta Lacks was a poor black tobacco farmer just trying to get by and support her family. She was known for being kind and caring by all, so when the cancer set in, no one knew what she had done to deserve such a cruel fate. She had cervical cancer and it spread and spread and doctors could do nothing to help her, nothing at all. One lucky doctor however got a sample of a tumor- without her knowledge- and grew it in his lab. Soon the cells could grow, almost like magic and were as unstoppable as the cancer in Henrietta herself. Soon Henrietta passed away, but her immortal cells continued to grow. They became a medical anomaly and were soon packaged and sold to researchers all over the world and were used in all kinds of research. Yet her family had no idea this was going on- they were left in the dark completely until one day they heard of the wonders Henrietta’s cells.
This story is told in a very creative way; it jumps back and forth in time, from Henrietta’s time when researchers worked with her cells and to modern day as the author searches for information about Henrietta’s life. This juxtaposition of views gives the reader an insightful view into the real story, and into how hidden the story of Henrietta truly was. It pushes the reader to question what they thought they knew about the ethical issues surrounding race and class in medical research.
I initially picked up this book because I found the science aspect of it interesting, but found that it was truly a masterful blend between fact and story telling. It explored the impact of race on medical treatments in a very interesting way, as it showed just how little information was given to the patients about what was happening to them. I found it intriguing because I had never thought about issues like this before. I would recommend this book to anyone with even a slight interest in science.
Sona Raju is an eleventh grader at Novi High School. She enjoys reading and music and hopes to pursue a career in the medical field.