By Rachel Thomas '14
CONWAY, Ark. (October 24, 2012) - New York Times best-selling author and science writer Rebecca Skloot presented the keynote speech for the Hendrix-Murphy Foundation, under this year's theme of Literature and Medicine.
Skloot began her talk by discussing the story of her book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
The book is about HeLa cells, immortal human cells that continue to reproduce after being sampled, as well Henrietta Lacks and her descendants.
Lacks, a poor African-American tobacco farmer and mother of five children, was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1951. She unknowingly donated the first HeLa cells.
With segregation still in effect, Johns Hopkins was the only hospital nearby where Henrietta could get treatment. While she was there, her doctor took a sample of her cancer cells, and gave them to his colleague Dr. George Gey.
To Gey's surprise, Henrietta's cells were immortal. They continued to divide and reproduce after being sampled. That was the start of HeLa cells, which have been shot into space and cloned. They've been used for all kinds of research, and have led to numerous medical advances.
As Skloot put it, "I think one of the amazing things about the story of HeLa is at some point you turn the page and there you are, this is where you personally identify with it. Because there isn't a single person out there who hasn't benefitted in some way."
Skloot was 16 when she found out about Henrietta Lacks during a biology class at her local community college. The professor wrote "Henrietta Lacks" on the board, told the class about HeLa cells, and said that Henrietta was "a black woman." And then the class ended.
Skloot wanted to know more, but her professor couldn't help her. No one had tried to find out about Henrietta or her family. They only knew about HeLa cells.
When she finished her book, Skloot tracked down that biology professor and sent him a copy.
"His response when he read this book was, I think, a beautiful and important message," Skloot said. "He said this is why we teach. Because we never know what one sentence in a classroom is going to change somebody's life completely, and what they're then going to do as a result."
Skloot herself didn't know that hearing about Henrietta had changed her until she took a creative writing class in her junior year of college. She was a pre-vet major at the time, and she only took the class because creative writing fulfilled a foreign language credit at her university.
Once she started, she found that she enjoyed writing. In her senior year, her writing instructor suggested she apply to M.F.A. programs instead of veterinary school.
"He said to me these words, that I like to repeat whenever I have students around, which is 'letting go of a goal doesn't mean you've failed, as long as you have a new goal in its place. That's not giving up, it's just changing directions, which can be one of the most important things you do in your life.'"
So Skloot changed her major, went into an M.F.A. program, and started to write a manuscript length work about Henrietta Lacks. It would take her more than 10 years.
She told the students in the audience that one of the most important things to learn is to notice what she calls "what moments."
"Everything I have done in my career I can trace back to a 'what' moment," Skloot said. "…And I often hear from many other people in many other professions, that some of the most important things we do in life start with those little tiny moments that make us go 'what?'"
Skloot had a moment like this when she got into contact with Deborah, Henrietta's daughter, who finally hung up on Skloot after accusing her of wanting to "steal her cells."
This relates to the ethical complications to the HeLa story.
The Lacks family didn't know about the cells until the 70s, when scientists tracked down Henrietta's children, to conduct studies on them (mostly without their consent).
At first, Henrietta's family didn't understand what was going on. When they did understand, their reaction was mixed. Especially after they found that these cells were being bought and sold, while most of the Lacks live in poverty and can't afford to take advantage of the health advances their mother's cells have helped create.
Skloot had to work for a year and a half to get the family to trust her, in part because of their complicated relationship with the HeLa legacy.
"I think scientists, when we talk about who should benefit off this research, I think they often imagine people are waiting for a check, like they actually want to get a cut of the proceeds. But what I hear across the board from the public and the research subjects is that's not true, they just want to be able to go to the doctor," Skloot said.
After publishing the book, Skloot set up the Henrietta Lacks Foundation to provide scholarships and healthcare aid to Henrietta's descendants.
In addition to the Foundation, a group at Johns Hopkins has taken on the responsibility of helping the Lacks "navigate the system" to get the welfare benefits they qualify for.
Ultimately, Skloot says the Lacks all agree that Henrietta would be happy with her legacy. She was a "human-lover" who enjoyed taking care of people. Henrietta's daughter Deborah believes that Henrietta's spirit, through her cells, is still taking care of people today.
View photos from Skloot’s talk here.
Rachel Thomas is a junior English studies major from Fayetteville, Ark.