This is one of the best non-fiction books around. Hands down. And for those of you who profess to not enjoy non-fiction? Pshaw, try this one and change your mind you shall. I listened to the audiobook version, narrated by Cassandra Campbell, and listened to this with rapt attention to the 12 hours and 30 minutes within a day and a half. This story will not let you down.
More than sixty years ago, Henrietta Lacks was a young married mother, and was suffering from cervical cancer. She and her husband made the regular journey to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore for treatment, and it soon became evident that it was an aggressive form of cancer and she soon died painfully. During one of her treatments prior to her death, her cells were taken to be included in trials to see if they would regrow on their own. Up until that point, the team attempting this was unsuccessful. They didn't have much hope with yet another grouping of cells.
But Henrietta's cells did regrow. What became of those cells, known as "HeLa," have done so much for science that the list of benefits Henrietta's cells provided is innumerable. The only thing was that her cells were taken without her knowledge, or her family's knowledge. Those who did have her cells, these immortal cells that magically continued to regrow, became wealthy while Henrietta's family was never given a dime.
This is a riveting and suspense-filled story of Rebecca Skloot's journey to bring the story of "HeLa" to the center stage, which ultimately showcases Henrietta and her family in the forefront as well. Documenting the progress of science because of the HeLa cells and weaving in this deeply personal family story, this non-fiction book will make you angry as you learn about the injustices brought upon one woman and her body, and more than likely will also leave you in awe of all the things that HeLa helped. The ultimate discussion regarding ethics is also addressed, and if a patient should be informed that their cells or other tissue are taken which may be given over for research and potential financial gain. The ethical questions and debates on whether or not you own your own body's waste and cells is fascinating and frightening at the same time. Arguments against informing a patient have brought up that it would bring science's progress to a standstill because patients will be bartering for the highest dollar for their tissues, and withholding it in order to achieve that. Of course, the debate the other way is that this is your body, your tissues. Shouldn't you have a right to negotiate where pieces of you go and how they are used?
When you sign all of the medical release forms, do you read everything? Probably not. But if your cells or other items were taken from you and science benefited from it, wouldn't you want to also personally benefit from it? I think so. But in the Lacks' family, they never benefited, and in fact, didn't even have health insurance. Can you imagine the travesty of this? The family of the woman who suffered painfully and died from a horrible disease, unknowingly gave her body over to science which benefited greatly (and still benefits as the cells continue to regrow), but her own family rarely visits a doctor because they have no insurance to help them with the payments.
Probably some of the more fascinating and scarier sections of the book actually comes at the end, when recent cases are reviewed in which tissue disposal is debated. I was stunned at what could happen even today, and began to wonder if, while HeLa has helped so much, if we've really advanced at all in the question of ethics. Of course, one side of me thinks that yes, of course we have, but then there are these cases that make the whole foundation of common sense and fairness buckle and tremble.
This is an absolutely amazing story, written with passion and knowledge, and bringing this education to the average person who doesn't know a lick about science. It's easily readable and understandable, and it will generate much debate and discussion. Without question, I highly recommend this book for book clubs, and really for anyone who wants to give non-fiction a try. This will leave you speechless and convert you over to reading even more non-fiction.
And why will you love this via audio? Cassandra Campbell is fast becoming one of my favorite narrators. She has the perfect voice to bring this story to life and, quite frankly, you just can't go wrong when she's leading the charge and voicing a story.
About the Author (from her website)
Rebecca Skloot has a B.S. in biological sciences and an MFA in creative nonfiction. She is an award winning science writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine; O, The Oprah Magazine; Discover; and many other publications. She specializes in narrative science writing, and has explored a wide range of topics, including goldfish surgery, tissue ownership rights, race and medicine, food politics, and packs of wild dogs in Manhattan. She has worked as a correspondent for WNYC's Radiolab and PBS' Nova ScienceNOW. She and her father, Floyd Skloot are co-editors of The Best American Science Writing 2011.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is Rebecca Skloot's debut book, and took more than a decade to research and write. It is being translated into 25 languages and will also be produced into an HBO movie.
Rebecca Skloot currently lives in Chicago, but also heads to the hills of West Virginia to write, save stray animals, and knit. An avid knitter, she continues the family tradition of her mother, Betsy McCarthy, who is a professional knitter.
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