Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Book: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Writer: Rebecca Skloot

The Dealio: This is non-fiction that reads like a combination fantasy/sci-fi/mystery novel. And, as a matter of fact, it sorta IS.
In 1953, a young black woman named Henrietta Lacks died. Hey, wait a minute! Why, then, is this book called the 'immortal life'? OK. Here's why: although Henrietta did die, her cells are still with us, in the form of- to many, but not me- the extremely famous research projects, (everything from how cells respond to outer space travel-so, yeah, they've been to the moon- to the development of a vaccine for polio, and so, so, so much more besides),all of which are based upon a cell line known, for generations, only as 'HeLa'.
In this engrossing story, we are led through Henrietta's life, her death, the survivors in her family, how her story inspired a self-admitted 'uninspired student' to learn-and to write about what she learned. There are trips through history- the history of Baltimore, of Johns Hopkins and its original charter- to the Hell which passed for 'care' of the indigent 'problem patients'- those with neurological problems, like epilepsy, and palsy, as well as those who were merely deaf. Every time you think you know where the story is leading you, a sharp right turn appears and off you go into another quadrant of the universe.

The Grading Session: 5.5 pengies out of 5. I am all too aware that my review is sadly inadequate to this powerful, moving and breathtaking story that mingles science with mysticism and moments of great, deliberate cruelty with those of extreme compassion and sacrifice.
As a medical person, I am at once appalled and angry by what this woman went through in the name of ignorant medical treatment. As a woman, I am proud of her contribution to a world she would imprint with her passion and drive to help every person in need she ever met. And, by now, she has immeasurably helped millions she never met. Read this book and tell me I am wrong.
PS: I got the audiobook and the voice characterisations are so outstanding, that I recommend this way of getting into the book. I was hooked 5 minutes into the first CD.

Lessons Learned: So many of us owe so much to those who -mostly anonymously- went before, giving unsparingly of themselves. How humbled am I by their generosity...even if it occurred, often without any knowledge, permission or benefit-financial, physical or mental- to them? More than I can say.

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