Imagine you are struggling to pay medical bills and find yourself without health care. Now imagine that your mother or grandmother’s cells were used to make some of the most innovative vaccines and medications in the world — the same medications and vaccines that you will not have access to because you cannot afford them. This is only part of the true story Rebecca Skloot uncovers in her book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”
“The Immortal Life” was selected as VCU’s 2010 summer read, and all incoming freshmen were required to read Skloot’s story in order to join in on a book discussion in their Focused Inquiry classes. Skloot was also the keynote speaker at the VCU New Student Convocation.
“The Immortal Life” tells the true story of an African-American woman who worked as a tobacco farmer from the South. Lacks died from cervical cancer in the early 1950s, but scientists removed some of her cancerous cells without her knowledge. After her death, more cells were created to be used for medical research. Lacks’ cells — still living today long after her death — were used to assist in the formation of the polio vaccine and other major medical discoveries.
Skloot takes the story of Lacks and pairs it with the struggles of her modern day family residing in Baltimore. Even after Henrietta’s name was released as the donor of the cells the Lacks family never received any payment.
This side of the story has elicited a strong response from some readers, including VCU freshman Derek Cook.
“Something was just wrong with that,” Cook said. “I can understand the name being confidential but when they released the name they should’ve told her family so they could do something about it.”
Last week, Skloot held a book discussion and signing at the Library of Virginia in downtown Richmond. The author attracted a standing room-only crowd. The library staff estimates that around 450 people attended in all.
VCU alumni Kim Williams drove all the way from her home in Lynchburg, Va. to see Skloot. Although she did not make it into the auditorium, she got the chance to meet the author and have her book signed. Williams thinks Skloot’s book was an excellent choice for VCU’s summer read and believes young people have a lot to learn from it.
“Although you may feel wronged you can still take the time to make it right,” Williams said. “And you can turn to whoever is willing to help you make it right. Don’t stick to one race or one group of people or one person. Broaden your horizons. Whoever is willing to help you let them help you.”
Williams says she plans to give the book to her friends and family as a Christmas present this year.
The book covers far more than just medical issues; it addresses issues of race and social economics as well as many others, which surprised VCU freshman Haley Lutz.
“It’s a well rounded book and she did a good job with hitting opinions and researching and getting to the bottom of it,” Lutz said. “It’s pretty interesting to learn about the history and the story behind the controversy, how everyone plays a part in the medical field and the research today.”
For more information on Rebecca Skloot and “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” visit the author’s website at www.rebeccaskloot.com.