In the same way we sometimes debate whether the story should be seen as an entirely separate entity to the writer, so too scientists perceive a sample of cell tissue as separate to the human body it was extracted from.
Except that it is not possible to extract a story from a writer’s imagination without their consent.
Henrietta Lacks was a young mother in her early thirties when she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer that would quickly take her life. She was fortunate to live close to John Hopkins hospital, built in 1889 as a charity hospital for the sick and poor, to ensure equal access to medical care for all, no matter their race, status, income or any other characteristic that might have otherwise given cause to discriminate in many of the hospitals at the time.
Before undergoing treatment, one of the Doctors took a tissue sample of both her healthy cells and the cancerous cells, as he had been doing to most patients, in an effort to try to find cells that would continue to replicate without dying – searching for the elusive “immortal” cell. It had never been done successfully with human cells.
He succeeded and the cells became known the world over – as he gave them away freely – as HeLa cells, immortal human cells that never died and could be used over and over to test for cures to disease and to observe how cells react to numerous variables, furthering science in ways unimaginable previously.
‘In culture, cancer cells can go on dividing indefinitely, if they have a continual supply of nutrients, and thus are said to be “immortal”. A striking example is a cell line that has been reproducing in culture since 1951. (Cells of this line are called HeLa cells because their original source was a tumour removed from a woman called Henrietta Lacks.)’
Few paused to ask about the woman behind these cells, what was her story, how her family felt about the multi million dollar research industry that made great strides in science , yes, but also made entrepreneurial types wealthy in the process.
Rebecca Skloot first heard of the HeLa cells in 1988, she was 16-years-old, sitting in her biology class listening to a lecture on cell culture by her instructor Donald Defler. He described the many things that have been learned by being able to grow cells in culture, indicating that much we knew today was due to the proliferation of cells made available thanks to Henrietta Lacks.
‘HeLa cells were one of the most important things that happened to medicine in the last hundred years, ” Defler said.
Skloot made Henrietta the subject of her research for 10 years in the creation of this thorough, respectful account of the life of Henrietta Lacks and her journey to uncover the events of the time within the context of what was the norm in her day.
In much of her location research, when she travelled to meet and interview people, she was accompanied by Henrietta’s daughter Deborah, a passionate woman, unable to find peace in her own life, until she had helped bring her mother’s story to light.
Henrietta Lacks was born in Roanoke, Virginia in August 1920, in a small shack overlooking a busy train depot, where freight cars constantly shunted to and fro. She lived there with her parents and 8 older siblings until 1924, when her mother died giving birth to her tenth child.
Her father lacked the patience for raising children, so took them all to his family in Clover, Virginia, where they farmed tobacco and split the children between those who could take them. Henrietta went to live with her grandfather, Tommy Lacks and her nine-year-old-cousin Day, left there after his birth, by his mother.
‘A twelve year old cousin and midwife named Munchie delivered him, blue as a stormy sky and not breathing. A white doctor came to the home-house with his derby and walking stick, wrote “stillborn” on Day’s birth certificate, then drove his horse-drawn buggy back to town, leaving a cloud of red dust behind.’
Their life there, became one filled with chores, waking at 4 o’clock in the morning, feeding animals, tending the family garden and then off to the tobacco fields to work.
Skloot finds out about her childhood, her marriage to Day, the 10 years they were married and had their children and the diagnosis that she kept from everyone, until it became obvious she was going to die.
It is tragic, sad and yet also a brilliant and informative story and piece of scientific medical history that reads like a novel and brings our awareness to the many who unknowingly make sacrifices for the better of others and that always present aspect of commercial vultures, hovering in the wings, recognising an opportunity to profit.
It rightly reveals and celebrates the life of the little-known woman behind those cells, Henrietta Lacks, who died at a young age from a ravaging cervical cancer, her children’s struggle, the family’s history and all that is kept from them in the name of science.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was one of my Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads of 2015.