Henrietta Lacks, Part 1: Life

Hello, Bookies:

I am fascinated by the scope of this book. Rebecca Skloot is telling three distinct but intersecting stories: the gripping personal history of Henrietta Lacks; the scientific importance of HeLa; and Skloot’s relationship with the Lacks family. This structure really worked for me. Before reading, I was nervous that I would have a hard time getting a toehold in the scientific aspect of this book. Despite its medicinal importance, I’m not sure that I would have found HeLa as interesting were I not intrigued by Henrietta and her family. By switching between the three veins, the science was contextualized by Henrietta’s life and became infinitely more meaningful to me. What did you think? Did this structure work for you?

I’ll start with the human aspect of Henrietta Lacks rather than the scientific, since that is what drew me in. Henrietta’s life was far from easy, even well before she got sick: She was abandoned by her father, became a mother at the age of 14, and then moved to Turner Station with her unfaithful husband, where she was faced with poverty and segregation. Still, Henrietta had a spirit that couldn’t be broken. All of her friends described her as being quick to laugh and having a sunny disposition.

Though I loved the story about going out dancing with her cousin Sadie, the scenes of Henrietta as a mother were the most powerful for me. Sadie suspected that Henrietta waited to seek medical care for as long as she did because she was afraid her treatment would prevent her from having more children. It was heartbreaking when Henrietta realized, while recovering from her hysterectomy, that the surgery had made her infertile—how could her doctors have neglected to explain the nature of the operation to her? As her condition worsened, Henrietta’s doctors forbade her husband, Day, from bringing their children to visit her in the hospital. The image of Day and the children picnicking on the grass underneath Henrietta’s window so she could watch them was poignant and bittersweet. What parts of the book made Henrietta come alive for you?

The importance of HeLa, Henrietta’s immortal cancer cells, can’t be overstated: They have played a vital role in the research of a diverse list of medical conditions. HeLa has been responsible for saving countless lives. As the birth of HeLa unfolds, I was struck by how casually the scientific community handled medical research. Dr. Richard TeLinde, a cervical cancer expert at Johns Hopkins Hospital, needed to grow cervical tissue for an experiment that he hoped would ultimately save lives and prevent unnecessary hysterectomies. George Gey, the head of the tissue culture research at the same hospital, was collecting whatever cells he could in an attempt to create the first immortal human cells. TeLinde and Gey agreed to work together: TeLinde would supply Gey with human tissue, and Gey would try to grow the human cells that both men needed for their research. They reached this decision as easily as if they were trading baseball cards rather than human cells. Did this surprise you? Did you find that the doctors were too nonchalant with their research, or did you think that their attitude was a product of the times? After all, Skloot points out that this was a very common practice. Unable to afford health insurance, many blacks in the Turner Station region used the public wards of Johns Hopkins for medical care. Some doctors felt that harvesting cells for research was a form of payment for their (otherwise free) medical services. What do you think of that argument, and would you feel differently if the doctors had the informed consent of their patients?

I’d really like to hear your feedback about any of these issues, as well as your general response to this first section. Let’s meet back here next Thursday to discuss Part Two: Death.

—Erin

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