Image via WikipediaI was a substitute teacher for many year of my life. Once I had a little kindergartner that sat in the front row with"Raymond" written in big letters across the front of his shirt. I called him Raymond for a week before I realized that he was wearing hand-me-downs from his older brother. His name was really John. That was when I learned that, next to the air that they breathed, their name is the most important thing in any person's life. I have never forgotten that lesson. That was the thought that came to my mind as I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
Henrietta Lacks was a black woman that died of cervical cancer in the mid 1950's. She suffered from the sexually transmitted infections called human papillomavirus, the cause of most cervical cancers. When John Hopkin Hospital removed the cancer they conserved a part of the growth and grew the cells in the lab. Some quirk of nature made this culture grow an at astounding rate and it has never died. In fact, the culture became the medium used in the discovery of the Salk Vaccine, AID research and cancer research.
When a culture is used in research of this type it is usually named for the donor so it became HeLa and Henrietta Lacks last name was changed to Lane in the scientific community. The name became the symbol for the lack of human connection between the person that suffered from that horrible cancer and the scientific community that went on to make use and profit from it's existence. Not only was Henrietta not aware of the cells the researchers were using the family was never allowed to share in the joy of discoveries made because of their mother. Henrietta Lacks became Henrietta Lane and was lost to them for many years. It was as though Henrietta Lacks was forced to wear an identity that did not belong to her. The children were never told about the existence of the cells even though they were asked to give blood samples so the hospital could study their body chemistry and compare it with the cells removed from their mother.
The Lacks family lived with the fear that they too would have the cancer that killed their mother. They were kept in ignorance because the hospital failed to consider their feelings. I love that the author, Rebecca Skloot was able to bring the simple tortured life of the family into the conscience of the research community, connecting the two forever. The HeLa culture is still in use today. Ms. Skloot weaves a beautiful story about the evolution of knowledge related to the humanity of the family and the HeLa cells still used by researchers today. Isn't it wonderful when science and humanity come together in one place? But better than that she gave the family ownership of their part in the story and made Henrietta Lacks a real person in the reader's minds.
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