In 1951 there was no such thing as a patients' bill of rights or informed consent when undergoing medical procedures or being enrolled in a research program. When Heniretta Lacks sought treatment at Johns Hopkins charity hospital, entering through the doors for "colored" people, she had no idea that that the cancer cells that were taking over her body would still be living sixty years later. In fact, HeLa cells (named after their original host) have been used by almost everyone who has conducted any kind of biological or genetic research in the last half century.
In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot recounts her journey to discover just who Henrietta Lacks was. Skloot interviewed Henrietta's doctors, befriended her family, and conducted basic investigative research. The story takes tangents into medical research and the laws protecting patients. She raises questions about who owns the leftover tissues doctors collect from biopsies, blood tests, and surgery. The answers aren't easy once you take into consideration monetary concerns, privacy issues, and ethical dilemmas.
Skloot skillfully relates technical aspects of HeLa cells and medical research, making that part of the book as interesting as learning about Henrietta Lacks and her children. Although readers don't have trouble becoming absorbed by the story, they are left wondering about Skloot's methods and the ultimate consequences the book will have on Henrietta Lacks's family.
Note: I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks for my Skype book club, which discussed the book in early May. Some of the thoughts expressed here were strongly influenced by that discussion.
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Published by Crown Publishing, 2010
Challenges: New Author, Buy and Read, 100+
Source: Bought (see review policy)