Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

“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 tumor removed from a woman named Henrietta Lacks” Rebecca Skloot, 2011, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta Lacks was a beautiful, strong, independent, black woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her ancestors.

She was known to be a very kind, loving, and helpful young woman. Her children, husband and cousins loved her. Everyone knew Henrietta was a very cheerful person and was always willing to help others. It all changed when she started feeling sick. She described her pain as “A knot”, she said. “It hurt something awful- when that man want to get with me, Sweet Jesus aren’t them but some pains” (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, 2010:24). On January 29, 1951, Henrietta was first taken to Johns Hopkins Hospital because of the knot she had.

Johns Hopkins was her only choice fro a hospital since it was the only one near them that treated black patients. That day, Henrietta learned she had a malignant epidermis carcinoma of the cervix. But her cancer was different. Little did she know that her cancer cells would be saving lives of many others in the following years.

“All cancers originate from a single cell gone wrong and are categorized based on the type of cell they start from. Most cervical cancers are carcinomas, which grow from the epithelial cells that cover the cervix and protect its surface” (Rebecca Skloot, 2010, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta was treated with radium tube inserts, which were sewn in place.

Radium was first discovered in the late 1800s and it destroys any cells it encounters, it can cause mutations that can turn into cancer, and at high doses it can burn off a person’s body, but it also kills cancer cells. According to Rebecca Skloot, Hopkins Hospital had been using radium to treat cervical cancer since the early 1900’s (2010, 47). The tubes remained in her for several days and when they were removed so were two samples of he cervix – a healthy part and a cancerous part- without her permission. The cells were given to Dr.

George Otto Gey to examine and it was him who discovered the immortal cells of Henrietta Lacks, which became known as the HeLa immortal cell line. “Henrietta got the same care any white patient would have; the biopsy, the radium treatment, and radiation were all standard for the day. But several studies have shown that black patients were treated and hospitalized at later stages of their illnesses than white patients. ” The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, 2010: 88. Henrietta returned to the hospital for a treatment on August 8 but this time she asked to be admitted. She was in so much pain and the cancer was only spreading through the body.

She remained at the hospital until the day of her death. There was no hope for her and passes away on October 4, 1951, at the age of 31. Rebecca Skloot became interested in this story at a very young age. It intrigued her to find out that Henrietta’s cells have lived outside of Lacks’ body longer than they lived inside of it, and to this day they are still helping researchers learn about human cells, to develop treatments for cancer, and to study countless other diseases. Rebecca was shocked when she found out that no one knew any personal information of the original owner of these miraculous cells.

So she went on a journey to find out more about this “black woman” who changed medical research in so many ways. She knew it would not be an easy task but the struggles would be worth it. Henrietta’s family did not learn of her immortal cells until more that twenty years later after her death, when scientist-investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without being informed. Rebecca had to get closer to her family; she started by calling Dr. Roland Patillo.

Although he is very hesitant at first, he gives her some information about the Lacks family, advising her to contact Deborah, the only living daughter. Deborah answers Rebecca’s call very favorably and excited, she gave plenty of confusing information to her but by the second call, Deborah is no longer excited and tells Rebecca she needs to talk to the men about receiving any further information about her mother and her cells. Rebecca makes a trip to Tuner Station to interview the Lacks family.

There she meets Courtney Speed who had tried to build Henrietta Lacks a museum but she is not willing to giver her any information. Courtney then decides to show her a BBC documentary about Henrietta and the HeLa cells.

From watching this video Rebecca decides to visit the other relatives in Clover. Clover is a very small town and was where she met Cootie who is Henrietta’s cousin and had polio earns he was younger. He explains his belief that the cells may have been created by voodoo rather that by doctors, the information he gives to Rebecca confuses her even more. As the book continues, Rebecca goes into detail of Henrietta’s children and their life after her death. Henrietta’s children Sonny, Deborah, and Joe went through some tough times when their mother dies. Especially Deborah.

She was only 2 years old when her mother died. She knew very little about her own mother but just enough to understand why she herself had various health problems. Rebecca Skloot was able to find out a lot of Henrietta’s family thanks to Cootie. When Rebecca finally gets to meet the Lacks family she realizes they really don’t have any information on their mother Members of the Lacks family assumed that Johns Hopkins had made money from sale of HeLa cells, but they had not received any compensation and were living in poverty without health insurance.

They also objected to everyone saying the Henrietta Lacks had donated her cells: they were taken, without asking, and the family was never informed of what had been done with them. Bobbie Lacks discovers that Henrietta’s cells are being grown, sold and used in research. Some researchers contacted the Lacks family but they were so far apart in terms of education, understanding, and personal investment of the issues. They assumed that the Lacks understood more that what they really did.

They wanted samples of Day (Henrietta’s husband) and from all of her children so that they could do DNA analysis, When Deborah went to the hospital for the blood samples, she was afraid that she had the same cancer her mother did but then she learned what had actually happened to her mother and how part of her was still “alive”. Deborah became somewhat obsessed with her mother, doing her own investigation on her own.

The Lacks family began to get involved with anything that had to do with Henrietta. The began to feel the good and bad sides of her recognition: proud of her mother’s contributions, but also coming to fear that others were threatening to take her mother’s things from her, and resentful that money was raised for these activities, but nothing was given to the Lacks family

to pay their own medial bills. Rebecca stayed in contact with Deborah after many years and continued to help her understand what had happened to her mother and her cells. Deborah was still hesitant to release any additional information, she becomes very stressed about the situation so she stops going on research trips with Rebecca. Deborah dies happy and less stressed than usual. The first cell production factory was created at Tuskegee Institute, growing up to twenty thousand test tubes of HeLa cells each week.

They were so successful that they were used in so many other areas of research and were being sent to any scientist that was interested in buying them. The success of HeLa cell allowed the standardization of methods across the fields, allowing important advances in the filed, including cloning of single cell lines. Cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies began testing their products on cells as well. Journalist began to express an interest in telling the story behind the HeLa cells, and want to know the name of the person who was the source. It was then that Dr.

Gey created a false name to throw the journalist off, and it worked: the patient was identified as Helen Lane or Helen Larson, but not as Henrietta Lacks, reason why her family was unaware that her cells were alive. In 1966, a genetticist names Stanley Gartler found out that the cells “contained a rare genetic marker called glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase-A (G6PD-A), which was present almost exclusively in black Americans” Excerpt From: Rebecca Skloot. “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. ” He came to realize that the HeLa cells were extremely contagious and could spread so fast that no one would ever notice them. This discovery changed the game for many scientists and their research.

illion of dollars were thrown away, the research done with these cells were all a fail to many scientist. George Gey, developer of the HeLa cells, was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer. He served as a subject for tests of several experimental treatments, but died within months of his diagnosis. A few months after his death several colleagues reviewed the files on Henrietta Lacks as they prepared to write an article on the history of HeLa in honor of Gey. They realized that the original cancer had been misdiagnosed. Although this wouldn’t have changed treatment at the time, it might help explain why it had spread so rapidly.

Their article was the first public identification of Henrietta Lacks as the source of HeLa. Shortly after that, increased government funding for a war on cancer became available, along with pressure to find the cancer virus. However, the HeLa contamination of other cell lines became a critical problem in this increased research effort. When it turned out that a supposed cancer virus identified in some Russian cancer patients was actually HeLa contamination, the problem began to be publicized in news stories, but identifying the source of HeLa as Helen Larsen or Lane, as had been reported in

the 50s. In 1973 an article was published in one of the premier research journals, establishing at last that the name of the woman whose cells lived on in HeLa was Henrietta Lacks. Critical Review I enjoyed this book very much. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was the perfect book to compliment this course of Woman Studies/ Health Education 103. This book combines two different stories: a narrative describing the life and fate of the Lacks family also including history of the development of the HeLa cells and a consideration of the ethical issues involved in the use of the tissues and cells take from patients during diagnostic procedures.

Rebecca Skloot did an amazing job of putting these two strokes into one, making it a rather enjoyable and readable story. The fact that each chapter begins with a time frame made it easier to understand the historical context of the topics. This book is written at a level that makes it understandable to other individuals with some limited science backgrounds. The scientific terms that were used in the book were explained beautifully and helped me relate the history with the cells. The clash of ethics, race, class, and medical research were all covered during our course.

Even though Henrietta Lacks went through crevice cancer in the 1940’s, today it is still a major problem within African American woman in the US. “The ORWH reported in 2006 that racial discrimination and racism have remained significant operative factors in the health and health care of blacks. ” Contemporary Woman’s Health:

Issues for Today and the Future McGraw Hill 5th Edition. Racism still lives today and although Henrietta was treated like any other “white” woman would she still lived through the racism. I had never realized the depth of this issue with women and their health.

This book opened my eyes to the ethic problems women have been going through for years! I’m personally trying to pursue the career of Biochemical Engineering and this book gave me the motivation to continue to work hard to get where I want to be.

I’ve probably recommended this book to almost all of my friends that are in the medical field and also to my friends who enjoy a good book. I find myself talking about the book quite often and I always mention how amazed I am by everything that has been done with Henrietta Lacks’ cells. I’m looking forward to actually buying this book when I return it; it is definitely worth a second read.

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