The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Last night I finished reading the latest pick of the faculty book club that I belong to a school. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was a very interesting book and I learned a lot about the medical industry that I did not know.

The book is about the story of Henrietta Lacks, the woman whose cells became famous. Henrietta’s cells (HeLa cells) are used all over the world in medical research. Research done using her cells created the vaccine for polio and her cells have been used in research for cancer and AIDS. The books is crafted in a way that shows the separate stories of Henrietta and her cells and how those stories eventually converge and the havoc that it wreaks on her surviving relatives.

The book was written by Rebecca Skloot, who incidentally was at AWP this past weekend, and she began when she was just a student. She became interested in HeLa cells and how no one seemed to know anything about the woman from which these cells came from. Skloot’s research is dense and complicated but she does a good job of breaking the science down, making it accessible to a wide audience.

However, it is the personal narrative that Skloot constructs that will draw you into the book right away. It is a heartbreaking narrative that raises important questions about privacy, morality, poverty, education and health care. I think it is important book for people to read not only because Henrietta and her family deserve to have their story told, but also because people need to be aware of what the current laws are regarding human tissue. As Skloot says in her afterword, “When I tell people the story of Henrietta Lacks and her cells, their first question is usually Wasn’t it illegal for doctors to take Henrietta’s cells without her knowledge? Don’t doctors have to tell you when they use your cells in research? The answer is no–not in 1951, and not in 2009 when this book went to press.”

All books are meant to educate the audience in some way shape or form. This book opened my eyes to a lot of different issues occurring in the medical community and I think we owe it to Henrietta and all people like her to listen to her story.

Rebecca Skloot set up a scholarship fund for descendents of Henrietta Lacks. Donations can be made at www.HenriettaLacksFoundation.org.

Image of stained HeLa cells courtesy GE Healthcare (by way of Henrietta Lacks) via CC  
On May 29, 2010, there was finally a headstone erected at Henrietta’s gravesite. 
Henrietta and Day Lacks, circa1945. Courtesy of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Spring Musings

This past weekend kicked off my spring break from teaching and I think this might be the best spring break I’ve had in years. I’ve gotten a lot done around the house the first half of the week and plan to work on writing the second half. My sister was in town for her birthday (March 7th) so that was a fun way to kick off the weekend.


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I finished reading Shanghai Girls for our book club this month. I think it’s going to be an interesting book to talk about in terms of structure and content.

My initial impressions of the book are mixed. I’m not the type of person who needs a neat and tidy ending (I won’t spoil it for those of you who’d like to read it), so I actually liked the symbolism of the continuing cycle of the generations that came into play at the end of story. I also liked the story of the two sisters. I felt Lisa See’s portrayal of May and Pearls’ relationship was honest and candid. The two characters were written very well. However, the overall style of the writing, for me, seemed disjointed. I think because this is a historical novel, the historical parts of it seemed heavy handed at times. The balance between the narrative and the historical fact didn’t always work. For example, you’d be caught up in a deeply personal scene between characters and then all of a sudden a fact about the Japanese invading China or the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor would sneak in. It took me out of the narrative. I suppose it is possible that Lisa See did this on purpose to mirror the disruption the characters were feeling in their own lives due to these conflicts, however it doesn’t seem consistent enough to be considered technique.

I think my biggest problem with the plot itself is that I already knew everything about the sisters as a reader. In the final climactic moment of the story, as everything comes to a head, I already knew about their flaws, so as they revealed them to each other, I just felt bored.

I am looking forward to discussing this book with my colleagues at school. Who knows my opinions may change…
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What would you do if someone invited you to their death? When I was in 10th or 11th grade I dabbled in speech in debate for a very short time. The subject of my speech? Euthanasia. Even in my teenage years when I didn’t know anything, I felt that it should be a person’s right to die. This was before I watched my aunt be ravaged by ovarian cancer. Before my grandfather was diagnosed with lymphoma. Before nineteen year olds were diagnosed with breast cancer. This was before I became aware that it cost over two million dollars to treat colon cancer in this country.

Chuck Palahniuk published “Live Like You’re Dying” in MensHealth. In this article he recounts attending a dinner party where he didn’t know the outcome was death until the guests were asked to join hands and light candles. Check out the article. It will give you some food for thought.