Devastating

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

The Times has a review of Rebecca Skloot's book, The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks. Lacks was a black woman in Baltimore, who died of particularly deadly form of cervical cancer. But her cancerous cells basically became the holy grail of medicine:

To scientists, however, Henrietta Lacks almost immediately became known simply as HeLa (pronounced hee-lah), from the first two letters of her first and last names. Cells from Mrs. Lacks's cancerous cervix, taken without her knowledge, were the first to grow in culture, becoming "immortal" and changing the face of modern medicine. There are, Ms. Skloot writes, "trillions more of her cells growing in laboratories now than there ever were in her body." Laid end to end, the world's HeLa cells would today wrap around the earth three times.

Because HeLa cells reproduced with what the author calls a "mythological intensity," they could be used in test after test. "They helped with some of the most important advances in medicine: the polio vaccine, chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization," Ms. Skloot writes. HeLa cells were used to learn how nuclear bombs affect humans, and to study herpes, leukemia, Parkinson's disease and AIDS. They were sent up in the first space missions, to see what becomes of human cells in zero gravity.

CitizenE wrote in this morning to highlight this devastating quote from Lacks' impoverished descendants:

"She's the most important person in the world, and her family living in poverty. If our mother so important to science, why can't we get health insurance?"

Obviously, one could nitpick with this statement (Medicaid). But some familiarity with how we calculate poverty in this country, as well as Medicaid eligibility requirements, reveals that such nitpicking doesn't really answer the question.

On another point, I'm almost certain I'll never read this book. This has everything to do with me, and nothing to do with the quality of the book, which I'm sure is top-notch. It's just that after awhile, you come to some understanding about the broad truth of black people in this country. Once I got that--once I understood that African-Americans have historically been this country's great unwashed--stories like this are almost predictable.

Again, that's not a slight on the book, and it's a slight against stories like this. Part of how I've come to that understanding is by reading books exactly like this one. (Bad Blood for instance.) But for me personally, I think I've answered the question that this book would help me to explore. 

I think I'll buy a copy to support. The work has to go on.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2010/02/devastating/35246/