The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

henrietta lacks

In Nick Hornby’s book About a Boy made into a 2002 film, also about a boy, but with the big buck’s bonus of Hugh Grant as the lead, Will Freeman, bonds with a young boy and kids on he’s a single parent to get into the pants of Rachel Weisz, who’s definitely all woman, and not an LA hooker, the fiction is that Freeman can only live the life of Reilly because he inherited the rights to the song ‘Happy Birthday’. Every time it was sung in the world it began to rain dollar bills on him.

Imagine a world in which the family of Bill Gates couldn’t afford a computer were living on welfare or locked in a cycle of dead-end jobs or prison. Imagine a world in which ways of editing the germ-line of genes, Crispr, and changing the face and bodies of humanity and other species, curing cancer and AIDs, worth billions of dollars is the frontline of research by the growing biotech industries and go back to 1951.

Maverick scientist George Gey’s assistant took cell samples of tissue from Henrietta Lack’s cervix, which proved to be cancerous. 15 000 women a year were dying from cervical cancer. Herietta Lacks was no exception. She died in agony in the public wards of John Hopkins hospital segregated from white people ‘the blackness be spreadin all inside’ her. They were sure Henrietta Lack’s tissue would die too, as so many tissue cultures had died before it, but it did something extraordinary, it lived on to circle the earth and be taken into orbit by astronauts. HeLa cells were the Adam and Eve of tissue culture. It was traded and sold and still exists, but in modified form, much as the original Windows operating system lives on.

Rebecca Skloot (2010) The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks wasn’t the first to investigate what happened to the husband and three small children, two still in diapers, she left behind, but she was the most comprehensive, gaining the families trust, and in particular that of Henrietta’s daughter Deborah. All of the family have health problems. Deborah for example quotes what the Social Security people said about her.

I’m paranoid, I’m schizophrenia, I’m nervous. I got anxiety, depression, degenerating kneecaps, bursitis, bulged discs in my back, diabetes, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, cholesterol…’

Deborah doesn’t wish to be immortal.

Truth be told, I can’t be mad at science, because it help people live, and I’d be a mess without it… but I won’t lie, I would like some health insurance so I don’t got to pay all that health insurance every month for drugs my mother cells probably helped make.’

Henrietta’s youngest son is mad, constantly beaten as child, nicknamed Crazy Joe as an adult, he found Islam in prison, where he served time for murder after stabbing another black men straight through the heart with a knife, and he changed his name to Zakarihya. New start. Same old Crazy Joe when he came out. The truth teller.

Them doctors say her cells is so important and did all this and that to help people. But it didn’t do no good for her, and it didn’t do no good for us. If me and my sister need something, we can’t even see a doctor because we can’t afford it. Only people that got any good from my mother’s cells is the people that got money, and whoever sellin those cells—they get rich off mother and we got nothing.’

Crazy Joe recognises there is a law for the rich and a law for the poor. But Rebecca Skloot gets inside the nuclear family, even though she’s white, by being honest, hardworking, sympathetic and poor. We need more Rebecca Skloots clones in this world. Ask yourself this question would a biotech company exploit a nice middle-class boy like Hugh Grant in the same way? Crazy Joe is the sanest man this side of the moon.

http://unbound.co.uk/books/lily-poole

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