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I’ve been reading books and academic papers on bioethics and biopolitics for years, so you could say I was fairly prepared to handle the story behind the HeLa cell line – one of the most famous and controversial cell lines in the history of biomedical research. But Henrietta’s story, as written by Rebecca Skloot is saturated with something the other, more theorical works, do not delve into: human emotions. Specifically, the emotions of Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah.

The author puts us inside Deborah’s mind as she grapples with what has happened in the sixty plus years since her mother’s illness and death. In some ways, Skloot’s account comes very close to a patient narrative. It’s a risky move because the actual patient has been dead for sixty years, and who knows what Henrietta would say of all that has come from her harvested cancer cells?

But the risk pays off for Skloot – she gives us a patient-centered narrative even as we wade through the science chronicle. The polio vaccine was developed, HPV virus was classified into more than 100 strands and a vaccine distributed globally, cancer cells’ resistance to drugs has and continues to be tested…we’ve gained priceless knowledge, and prominent careers have been built on HeLa cells. But someone did pay a price.

If we’re human, we all become patients at some point, so Henrietta’s story is for everyone. People who work in medical industry should pay special attention. Those of us who were already in medical industry before HIPAA, might not be shocked by the Lacks family’s isolation and lack of informed consent. Still, it’s baffling to read how they were treated over the years.

I know that not everyone who works in medical research these days knows about Henrietta Lacks, but everyone who does should. If I were the one doing the research (as opposed to writing about the research others are doing), I suppose I might be expected to detach human emotion and human history from my scientific work. However, as long as HeLa cells live, we will all have a just reminder that we can take the cells out of the human, but we can never take the human out of the cells. We all want to find a cure for disease. Perhaps the road will be easier when we all understand that scientific research and the human spirit are inseparable.

P.S.: After spending time reading and writing papers about the novel Woman in Battle Dress, about the 19th century struggles of Dr. Henriette Faber, I could not help but smile about the similar first names. Maybe the two actual women shared the same resilience across time.