Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Excerpts: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

From "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot:

Open quote

I was stunned. The woman I’d been lying next to for days -- laughing, elbowing, consoling -- was now running from me like I was out to get her. "Deborah!" I called after her. "I’m not trying to do anything bad. I just want to learn your mother’s story, same as you." She whipped around, her eyes still panicked, "I don’t know who to trust," she hissed, then ran out the door, slamming it behind her."

After the jump, my review and more excerpts.

"The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot is a combination science story, biography of a cancer victim, and memoir of the author's quest to learn her story. It succeeds on all three fronts. The science is about the the first human cell line that didn't die out after a few cell divisions. The cell line has been used in medical research for a half century. The biography is of a poor African-American woman and her family. Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer in Baltimore in 1951. The memoir is of the author's efforts to learn her life story, requiring her to gain the trust of Henrietta's family and overcome their distrust of doctors, hospitals, reporters and outsiders in general. Skloot's skillful interweaving of these three storylines has all the readability of a great work of fiction. This is one book that is likely to appeal to the widest audience, no matter what genre you prefer.


"There’s no way of knowing exactly how many of Henrietta’s cells are alive today. One scientist estimates that if you could pile all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons -- an inconceivable number, given that an individual cell weighs almost nothing."

"By the early nineties, a scientist at Yale had used HeLa to discover that human cancer cells contain an enzyme called telomerase that rebuilds their telomeres. The presence of telomerase meant cells could keep regenerating their telomeres indefinitely. This explained the mechanics of HeLa’s immortality."

"The idea that God chose Henrietta as an angel who would be reborn as immortal cells made a lot more sense to them than the explanation Deborah had read years earlier in Victor McKusick’s genetics book, with its clinical talk"

"Deborah started wondering if instead of testing the Lacks children for cancer, McKusick and Hsu were actually injecting them with the same bad blood that had killed their mother."

"The Lackses aren’t the only ones who heard from a young age that Hopkins and other hospitals abducted black people. Since at least the 1800s, black oral history has been filled with tales of "night doctors" who kidnapped black people for research. And there were disturbing truths behind those stories."

"I imagined Deborah leaning over her answering machine listening, dying to know what I’d found. But she never picked up. One day her husband, the Reverend James Pullum, answered the phone on the second ring and started yelling without saying hello: "They want to be assured that they going to get some MONETARY SATISFACTION. And until anybody makes an AGREEMENT or puts that on PAPER, they are NOT going to talk ANYMORE. Everybody’s received some compensation but them, and that was they MOTHER."

"Everybody say she was real nice and cooked good," he said. "Pretty too. Her cells have been blowed up in nuclear bombs. From her cells came all these different creations -- medical miracles like polio vaccines, some cure for cancer and other things, even AIDS. She liked takin care of people, so it make sense what she did with them cells."