Reflections on The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

index (49)By Marcia Allen, Technical Services & Collections Manager

Lately we’re hearing about a great deal of local interest in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. In fact, this newspaper recently ran Chris Banner’s review of that 2010 title.  Readers who have read the book know that on one level, it can be approached as the personal account of a woman’s death as a result of cervical cancer.  On another level, there’s the phenomenal extent to which her cancer cells have been used in the last sixty years to combat other ailments like polio.  On yet another level, there are the inevitable ethical questions about the harvesting and the sharing of human tissue without patient consent.  Perhaps it’s the last concern, the ethical treatment of patients, which accounts for so many strong reader reactions about the book’s contents.
I just finished reading this book, and I found that I really struggled to finish it.  It’s not that it was badly written or that the content was dry; in fact, the book was fascinating in a gut-wrenchingly painful way.  I struggled with the revelation of the many awful situations it conveyed.  The appalling series of treatments to which Henrietta, a black woman from Baltimore, was subjected (the radium implants and the heavy doses of radiation that she suffered) were shocking. The fact that various tissue samples (designated as “HeLa cells”) were harvested without the family’s permission during her autopsy, let alone the manner in which the samples were shared and later sold commercially, was repugnant.  And the gradual awareness on the part of the Lacks family that Henrietta’s tissue had attained a state of “immortality” was truly disheartening.
Why the local attention some two years after initial publication?
The K-State Book Network, the all-university reading program, selected this title as the 2012-2013 school year common reader.  Committee members made this choice based on the book’s variety of discussion topics and its easy availability in different formats, among other criteria. The university kickoff ceremony was held early last spring, but there is ample time to attend one of several book-related events yet to occur.
One such event is scheduled for Thursday, September 20th, at 7:00 p.m., in the K-State Union Ballroom.  Attendees are invited to share a visit with the Lacks family.  Another event is scheduled for Wednesday, October 10th, at 7:00 p.m., in the K-State Union Forum Hall.  At that time, guest speaker Yvonne Reid, PhD, Manager and Scientist in Cell Culture Contracts, will address the aspects of biological research impacted by HeLa cells.  Her address is entitled “HeLa Cells and Biomedical Research: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”  A third event will take place on Tuesday, October 30th, at 7:00 p.m., in the Hale Library Hemisphere Room.  The topic for the evening is “Speaking the Silences: Women and Race in Kansas.”  Each of these events is free and open to the public.
Manhattan Public Library is also hosting a related event.  The library auditorium has been reserved on Tuesday, September 18th, at 7:00 p.m., for a discussion of the book.  Dr. Irma O’Dell, Senior Associate Director for Administration/ Associate Professor of the School of Leadership Studies at Kansas State University, will be the facilitator for the evening.  This event is also free and open to the public.
If you have not yet read this worthy book, you still have time to do so.  Manhattan Public Library has multiple copies of the Skloot book in a variety of formats.  Beyond print copies, also available in large print format, there are books on cd and a loanable book kit available for book groups.  MPL also has website links that will allow cardholders to download both audiobooks and ebooks of the title.
Again, this is not enjoyable reading, but in an age of explosive medical advancements and ethical dilemmas about sharing information and tissue samples, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a necessary reminder of human dignity and responsibility.  I would strongly encourage you to explore this book and to actively seek answers to your own questions about the contents.

Posted in: For Adults, Mercury Column

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