Friday, June 25, 2010

The Very Best Answers

A little while ago I received a book in the mail. I had been told about the work by the person who had read it and she had given me a taste. So my interest was peaked and I was looking forward to reading the book.

I do need to say right up front that I don’t want to ruin the read for anyone. So, I’ll only give the stingiest of a story outline here.

I read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot in two long pulls. The story is one of those where life is stranger then fiction. No one could ever make any of this up. And if someone did we would immediately classify the book as fiction. It isn’t. The book chronicles the real life events to real flesh and blood individuals. The work centers around the recovery of live cells from an African-American woman shortly before her death in early 1950’s Maryland and how those cells became the first human cells to be prorogated outside of a live person. The live cells, know as HeLa, provided the ground work required for almost every medical advance in the last 50 years. The propagated cells also made it possible for progress to occur in not only the medical fields but also in technological, industrial and military applications.

But the book goes well beyond a retelling or documenting of cell recovery and propagation. Ms. Skloot brings us face to face with an incredible array of individuals. We do meet researchers, doctors, technicians, scientists, administrators and lawyers. We also meet Ms Lacks’ husband, children, cousins and other neighbors and assorted relatives from Clover, VA and Baltimore, MD. Each has an individual perception and very human reaction to the harvesting of Ms Lacks cells.

Ms. Skloot uses the visual cue of a timeline to help the reader along their journey. And it is a good Idea that she does. The different chapters do move around in time a bit and the visual cue helps to center the reader. Along the way Ms. Skloot also becomes a character in her work and is no longer a dispassionate, third person observer. We read her emotional reactions to events as they unfold. And when she does enter into the work, it is completely appropriate that she do. It provides the reader with another perception of events and individuals.

Along with the very human stories that unfold we are also given a window into the ethical and legal ramifications of what took place and what continues to occur in the world of medical research today. These sections of the book provide the reader ample ground for continuing discussions that range from bioethics to personal moral obligations; to the role of corporate responsibilities to perceptions of individuals towards institutions and the need for historical accuracy in the documentation of research to the right to an individuals’ privacy. None of these discussions have any easy answers and all could continue long after the book is closed. And that is what leads to the title of this post because the very best of answers always leads to many, more questions.

See you at the Library,

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