The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

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3/5 stars.
ebook, 362 pages.
Read from May 31 to June 08, 2015.

For the last 60 years science has been using reproductions of the same cells for massive amounts of scientific research. They’re called the HeLa cells as they are named after the woman they were taken from, Ms. Henrietta Lacks. The cells were taken without Henrietta’s knowledge so for years, no one knew anything about the woman whose cells changed the face of scientific research and has helped save and heal millions of people as a result of this research. Almost on a sort of calling, author Rebecca Skloot felt strongly that she should find a way to tell Henrietta’s story and know more about the extraordinary person that made history by having her cells become the first ever to be replicated.

Henrietta Lacks came from very humble roots. She was born in Virginia in the summer of 1920, where her actual given name was Loretta Pleasant. To this day no one knows why or when she started going by Henrietta. The US was still segregated at this point so many black families were still not respected and were doing difficult work for very little pay. Henrietta and her family were tobacco farmers. Henrietta had her first child at 14 and married her first cousin. In 1951, Henrietta was diagnosed, at the only hospital that would treat black people, with cervical cancer while likely being pregnant with her fifth child. After the birth, doctor’s removed a lump in her cervix in which her cells were then also taken. In this day and age, doctors were not required to be accountable for removing cells or anything of the sort. They were even allowed withhold information if they didn’t believe it was on the patient’s best interest. It sounds outrageous but it was a common practice in this time period and people didn’t question their doctors. Black people were often treated as guinea pigs as well for any sort of research or experimentation. After the lump removal, Henrietta then went through a few sets of tube radiation treatments. Sadly, her cancer was misdiagnosed, as the specifics and differences between the types of cervical cancer were just starting to emerge at this point. The treatment itself is horrifying to read. Science just didn’t have the capacities to deal with cancer all that well during this time period and her radiation treatments were so strong that it charred and burned her skin.

Henrietta tragically did not improve and was in a significant amount of pain. She died on October 4, 1951, at the age of 31. Autopsies revealed that the cancer had spread through her entire body.

What makes this story enthralling, and equally horrifying, is question of the ethics and the morals of medicine when it comes to our cells and our bodies. Henrietta’s cells, or rather her cancer cells,  were unique, because they were the first cells to stay alive and reproduce in a laboratory. However, they were taken without her permission and since then her cells were sold, and are still sold by the billions to companies in the pursuit of scientific research, yet Henrietta’s remaining family members can barely afford their health insurance. They have not seen a penny of the billions of dollars of revenue that the HeLa cells have created. So the question that is still an issue today is, do we own our own cells and tissue? What sort of consent is required in order for scientists to use our cells?  Are we entitled to earn a portion of the revenue if our cells or tissue are used and sold for scientific research? Scientists, or rather companies,  have fought and won that if people could choose what their cells were used for and received part of the profit for it that it would inhibit scientific research. The counter argument being that research companies are already monopolizing their research for monetary gain and are inhibiting research anyway.

Skloot also detailed the difficult process that she went through in trying to obtain all of this information from the living members of Henrietta’s family. The media had used and abused Henrietta’s family over the years and many of them were angry with what happened to Henrietta and the HeLa cells. They wanted some sort of retribution, and you can’t really blame, so they were hesitant to talk to anyone. Skloot was able to work her way in with Henrietta’s daughter, Debbie, who truly just wanted to know more about her mother and how the whole situation unfolded. While this portion was an interesting and necessary add to the story, I felt that it overtook a little bit near the end. I loved the history and science in this book the most. In 2013, the National Institutes of Health gave Henrietta’s family some control over access to the cells’ DNA code and now 2 members of her family sit on a committee that regulate that code.

Overall the book posed some serious ethical questions that are still in debate today. The book is an amazing and passionate tribute to Henrietta and it has helped to ensure that her short life and sacrifice are not to be forgotten. A portion of the proceeds from purchasing this book are donated The Henrietta Lacks Foundation , which help to provide financial assistance to individuals who have made important contributions to science without their consent.

Intolerable: A Memoir of Extremes by Kamal Al-Solaylee

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3/5 stars.
Paperback, 272 pages.
Read from April 04 to 08, 2015.

I’m so close to reading all the books in Canada-Reads 2015 now! One more to go. Intolerable is the only official memoir in this years collection and I don’t see how Intolerable could have been written any other way.  This book is about a family who is torn apart by history and guilt.

Kamal Al-Solayee, was born in Aden, Yemen in 1964. He was last of 11 eleven children in the arranged marriage of his parents. Despite what people believe of the Middle East now, it wasn’t always that way. Kamal’s father was a wealthy business man and his family enjoyed all the luxuries that came with it. From vacations, photos, clothes and restaurants Kamal’s family was well taken care of in the days of Aden. Kamal’s sisters enjoyed fashion and make-up as well as going to the beach in their bikinis, all activities that were completely normal for them to be partaking in at the time. This happy family life unfortunately did not last. When Yemen was decolonized, Kamal’s father lost everything. The family had to move away from Aden and live off the savings that Kamal’s father had accumulated in which they become middle class citizens.

During this time was when Kamal started to notice that was different in that he took more of an interest in what his sister’s were doing than the masculine activities his brothers took part in. He was always a self-proclaimed mama’s boy so he was able to get away with the behavior while he was still young. As time progressed Kamal began to figure out that he was gay while, unfortunately, his oldest brother started to adopt the strict Muslim ways that had started to spread through the Middle East. His brother began to put pressure on his sisters, who were successful career women, about their ‘demeaning’ dress and behavior and tried to get them to adopt Islamic ways. It wasn’t until the family moved to again to be with their father that things really changed. The country was changing drastically to adopting stricter Muslim laws. Slowing Kamal watched his mother and sister’s become oppressed and their spark fade. The quality of life in their homes also quickly deteriorated in the war-torn area that they were living in. As Kamal knew he was gay, he feared for his life as homosexuality is punishable by death. He knew he could no longer stay with his family so he made the heartbreaking decision to go to school in England.

From there, Kamal realized that he never wanted to return home. He then ended up in Canada and found his home in Toronto but the tension and guilt he felt over the crumbling conditions his family was living never stopped haunting him. He cannot explain to his family the new life that he is living. The wouldn’t understand his homosexuality or even his career choices.

The Middle East has a way of catching up with you no matter how far you run.”

This book shows the tragic reality of living in the Middle East and what it’s truly like for families that live there and for those who leave it. Kamal is what Canada is all about, as his friends often told him. Kamal came to Canada with nothing but guilt and a heritage he was hoping to leave behind him. While he found a home and success within Canada it wasn’t until he was able to confront his heritage and family that he was able to start feeling whole again. While he never fully reconciled with his family, he was at least able to come to an understanding. Kamal did what he had to do to save himself and live the life that he needed to pursue, but the guilt of leaving his family will likely never leave him.

A poignant read and a necessary one to grasp the real realities of the people living in the Middle East.

Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War by Che Guevara

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3/5 stars.
Paperback, 320 pages.
Read from February 07 to 16, 2015.

I picked up this gem while I was actually in Cuba back in January of this year. It was my first trip to Cuba and I realized how little I knew about this fascinating little country with its big and expansive history. Thankfully there wasn’t a shortage of propaganda where I was staying. If I had more money and space in my suitcase I would have purchased quite a few more books.

Che is a remarkable individual and his dedication to Cuba and to the cause of communism is almost next to nothing. Che comes across as extremely intelligent and very articulate. His memoirs and diaries are published everywhere which probably makes him one of the most exposed politicians around. Don’t get me wrong, the Cuban government is pretty good at giving the leaders of their communist revolution a great reputation, and they have to. The history of Cuba is a rocky one, so the insurgence of this particular revolution was necessary for its time. From the Spanish to the British, and then the US, someone else was always taking advantage of Cuba and its people suffered for it. In 1933, Sergeant Fulgencio Batista threw a coup to overthrow Gerado Machado, a Cuban dictator known for his vicious rule. Sadly, after this coup, little changed under Batista’s rule. It was in 1953 when Fidel Castro made his  first attempt to revolt against Batista’s regime. It would be after this attack that a young Argentinian doctor named Ernesto Guevara would join the cause and assist in Cuba’s revolution and liberation.

“Che” is a form of colloquial Argentinian Spanish slang used in a vocative sense as “friend”. Che is the famous nickname given to Ernesto as a joke and term of endearment based on his heritage from his fellow Cuban comrades.

This book is a personal description of Che’s experiences during this pivotal revolution. Che spares no details with how difficult it was living in the forest for months at time and the sad deaths and sacrifices endured by all, especially the peasants of Cuba, who were initially afraid to assist or join the cause. His recollection is impressive as he remembers many of the names of some of the small time peasants who were essential in helping with the revolution that might have other wise been forgotten. He also details the specifics of those who betrayed the cause. Some he speaks of with remorse or honor and others with absolute distaste and resentment. It was exciting to see how big the small group of rebels became over such a short period of time . In 1959 the rebels send a group of 9000 strong into Havana, forcing Batista to flee, starting the beginning of a new era for Cuba, one that would bring positive change to the country and the lives of its people for the better.

From my own impressions of Cuba, some aspects of communism are no longer serving its people. Don’t read me wrong, I’m not saying that they need to replace their system with American capitalism but there are definitely areas that need improvement. The locals don’t have immediate access to some of the best food or clothes because they are too expensive and some people are still not allowed to leave specific regions of Cuba. Tourists get the best of everything, while they don’t. I was asked twice, discreetly, while I was there if I had any clothes or items that I was willing to part with. It made me pretty sad but if I wasn’t there as a tourist their economy and the people there would have even less. With tensions currently being mended between America and Cuba, as much as I don’t want this quaint country to become Americanized, it will eventually mean improvements for the locals.

Overall, a good description of the events and people that changed Cuba to make it the country that it is today.

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