By Leslie Johnson, associate professor of communication
Each summer, the GHC chapter of the American Association for Women in Community Colleges selects a noteworthy book for our Summer Book Club. It is a great time to gather for an evening of fun, food and conversation. Past selections include The Help by Kathryn Stockett as well as Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay. Both of these books ultimately made it to the big screen and this recent book selection is following the same path. Oprah Winfrey has scooped up the rights and will produce the movie for HBO.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a New York Times Best Seller, is a non-fiction work about a major medical discovery called the HeLa cell. Uniquely different from other books on the HeLa cell, this account focuses on Henrietta Lacks, the woman who made this discovery possible. The author’s intimate perspective reveals the emotional impact that standard medical practices can exact on patients and their families. For anyone ever confused by doctors’ medical explanations or concerned about overly vague medical permission forms, this book offers much food for thought on the issues of communication and bioethics.
Author Rebecca Skloot first heard about Henrietta Lacks in a 1988 freshmen biology class. In that course she learned that HeLa cells were the greatest medical breakthrough of the last 100 years. HeLa cells were the first human cells grown in culture that were able to consistently reproduce every 24 hours. Hence, they are referred to as immortal. HeLa cells have been vital to the development of numerous vaccines, treatments and cancer research. The professor also mentioned that the cells were obtained from a cancerous cervical tissue sample of a black patient named Henrietta Lacks. Skloot’s curiosity was peaked when she realized that this brief description was the most people knew about Henrietta. Twenty-two years later, after thousands of hours of interviews, Skloot’s journey to uncover the story of Henrietta Lacks finally came to fruition.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks traces Henrietta’s life from her earliest days as a poor Southern tobacco farmer through her diagnosis of cervical cancer, treatment and death in 1951, but it does not stop there. The book continues to follow Henrietta’s family as they cope with the consequences of her loss and deal with the events that occur as a result of her HeLa cells. The medical details surrounding the development and distribution of the HeLa cells are skillfully woven within the narrative of the daily lives and struggles of the Lacks family.
Medical miscommunication is highlighted by the juxtaposition of limited patient/doctor interaction battling a glut of Internet knowledge. It is heartbreaking to follow Henrietta’s family as these two forces collide. Some family members fear for their medical health and believe tabloid-inspired stories about the uses of Henrietta’s cells. The physical and emotional impact on Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, poignantly illustrates the consequences of this battle.
It is disturbing to learn about the callous approach many researchers used to advance the field of medicine. Research conducted on patients without their consent or knowledge makes one appreciate the sometimes tedious guidelines in place today. Some studies on African-American, mentally ill and poor populations are especially egregious.
This book also inspires discussion of ownership as it pertains to the human body. Do individuals have a right to determine how their discarded tissues and organs are used after surgery or testing? If a profit is made, do these individuals deserve a portion of those profits? Is the concept of privacy, ownership and profit beneficial or detrimental to the progress of medicine? Do an individual’s rights supersede the best interests of the human race?
Skloot does an admirable job of relaying difficult medical information in an understandable, concise manner. Plus, she creates relatable ties with individuals in Henrietta’s family and in the medical profession. The book cover states it best, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks captures the beauty and drama of scientific discovery, as well as its human consequences.”