The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Nursing Book Club

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

A story of magic cells and medical grey areas

By Rebecca Skloot
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Reviewed By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN

When Henrietta Lacks told her cousins she had a knot inside her, she knew something was wrong. It wasn’t syphilis or any of the other bad blood her husband occasionally brought home after a night on the town. Eventually, her doctor referred her to the center most used by poor blacks in Baltimore, Johns Hopkins. There her cervical cancer was diagnosed and treated, albeit unsuccessfully. Within a year, she died an agonizing death from uremia, not really understanding what was wrong. Her family was ignorant as well; they never recovered from the loss of their wife and mother.

But like many poor people in the hospital’s service area, the Lacks family always harbored a suspicion that somehow the staff at Johns Hopkins had mistreated their family member. In this case her husband and children were wrong — and right.

At the same time Henrietta was receiving the standard treatment involving radium implants, researchers were looking for ways to grow human cells in culture. Dr George Gey’s lab at Johns Hopkins was very active in the search, and when it received a few of Henrietta’s cells obtained during the biopsy, the staff treated them as all others. However, Henrietta’s cells were like no others; much to Gey’s amazement, they proliferated, marking the first time human cells had reproduced in the laboratory.

Before long, Henrietta Lacks’ cells (HeLa) were being distributed throughout the country and eventually the world. Their extraordinary vitality was mysterious. They could grow under a variety of conditions and really almost float in the air. At one point, much to the consternation of laboratory heads everywhere, her cells were found to be a contaminant of almost every research lab in the country. To remedy this setback cost cellular studies years, as well as millions of dollars.  

There were successes though, too. Today it is HeLa cells that form the basis of the multi-million dollar industry that markets biological materials. Lacks knew nothing of this, nor did her family; no one had ever given consent. All the profits that have accrued to so many medical companies and universities have bypassed her descendants. Even today, members of her immediate family lack health insurance and access to medical care.

More importantly, they feel as though somehow Henrietta lives on for everyone else but them. Their discovery, decades later, that cells directly stemming from their mother were being used in labs all over the world caused heartbreaking torment and made them suspicious of anyone seeking to study what happened.

Somehow Rebecca Skloot, who spent ten years writing this story, was able to overcome their hostility and get to the truth.  Her narrative reads like a novel, easily shifting the reader from the segregationist world in which Henrietta lived to the rarified world of laboratory medicine. How could science be so right and so wrong? The reader will never look at informed consent, vaccine research or genetic manipulation in the same way again.    

Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN is a freelance writer with extensive hospital and community-based nursing experience.

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