In 1951, a black woman named Henrietta Lacks checked into Johns Hopkins Hospital for treatment of terminal cervical cancer. Without her knowledge, a slice of her cancer was delivered to the lab. Although Henrietta died soon after, her cells lived on in culture, dividing and growing as cells never had before. Henrietta’s cells, named HeLa, were sent to labs throughout the world and have served as the research medium leading to phenomenal medical breakthroughs, including the development of the polio vaccine, gene mapping, and AIDS research. Today, HeLa cells are commonly available for sale over the internet, and scientists have grown more than 50 ton of the cells.
Rebecca Skloot candidly tells the story of Henrietta and her cells, of researchers, and of Henrietta’s family, woven together in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a text that is simultaneously biography, medical history, ethnography, and political science. This fascinating book serves as a historical illustration of more than 60 years of racial and ethical trauma played out in the life and death of just one woman and her family. Its a story of avarice, mistrust, and lack of regard for the dignity of all humans.
The author describes how she researched this text over a decade, pursuing Henrietta’s children as she sought to tell their mother’s story. Skloot pursued and listened, and eventually, slowly earned the trust of the Lacks family. She peeled back layers of the powerful medical industry, generationally-informed fear, and systemic racial injustice that weave the story of the Lacks family and HeLA.
In this day of verbal slings and arrows regarding social justice and Biblical justice, Skloot gives a dynamic demonstration of love. I don’t have the answers to the issues of justice in today’s society, but I know what loves looks like–and it starts with giving of oneself by listening . Listening changed the author in ways she never expected, and listening resulted in this beautiful book.
Please, friends, listen.