Reach & Read: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks By Rebecca Skloot

A little over a year ago I finished my Masters in Healthcare Administration. Our law teacher was fantastic! One of her many “gifts” to us was a list of thirty four books and movies addressing or illustrating healthcare legal and ethical dilemmas. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was among the list populated with well know movies such as Michael Moore’s Sicko, The Good Wife series, Atul Gwande works etc. Rebecca Skloot wrote this non-fiction story in 2010, her first book. I cannot even begin to imagine the hours she logged in research and sheer volume of patience required in building trust with the Lack’s family.

Rebecca does an excellent job of telling the factual, scientific portion dealing with cell lines and medical research, breaking down a really complicated subject to understandable concepts. Reading about the relatively young field of study and its growth over the last 60 plus years was fascinating.

I actually had the chance a recent fundraiser for the Benaroya Research Institute to chat (briefly of course, to avoid rapidly getting “out of my league”) with a scientist doing benchtop research. She was also impressed with the caliber of the story and found the history of HeLa to be something she previously took for granted.

Rebecca also incorporates a lot of detail of the social, “people watching” aspects of the life and time of Henrietta and her family. It was a poignant reminder of the wide variety of patients health care providers may encounter. Considering history of the actual patient, their family, economic status, education, beliefs etc is so important to connecting and healing. The book is about a lot more than a medical ethics, complete with a struggling family and dealing with unanswered questions. A perfect illustration of the Iceberg Principle.

I will also confess that I had an errant thought while digesting the global impact of HeLa (note: I have not googled to confirm). Think about all the miffed and repulsed white supremacists out there when they learn that much of what is keeping them alive to today, curing cancer, creating treatments etc derives directly from a poor black southern woman’s cervix. Hah! I recommend this book and encourage you to visit Rebecca’s webpage to learn more, see some trailers, hear NPR interviews, book club discussion guides etc. She does not derive any revenue from the direct sales of this book, they support the Henrietta Lacks Foundation.

So what else is on this great list? I have only a read or viewed few of them so far…. Stay tuned for more ..

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