S: All Bonaventure Reads
BC: The End | www.sbu.edu
FC: Reflections on "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by members of St. Bonaventure University's Class of 2014
1: "The Immortal Life" echoes many of the Franciscan values that form the foundation of an education at St. Bonaventure University: the dignity and worth of each and every person and an understanding that each one of us is sister or brother to everyone.
2: St. Bonaventure University salutes the freshman winners of the Provost's essay contest, held in conjunction with All Bonaventure Reads — "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks." | St. Bonaventure Provost Dr. Michael J. Fischer (far back) is pictured with essay winners (front, from left) Simone Bernstein, Marissa Bruno, Kevin Cooley, James Tantalo, Courtney Robinson, Angelia Roggie, and (back row, from left) Cody Clifford, Mike Burud, Dale Morley, Joanne Kruchten, Gabrielle Weir, and Carolyn Wozniak. Not pictured is Danielle Centone. | September 2010
4: From an early age, my parents brought my siblings and me to a tiny rural synagogue in southern Illinois for Friday evening services. On any given Friday Shabbat evening, there were a total of 11 participants; not even enough members to hold a minyan. Elderly members hand out prayer books and my little sister willingly volunteers to pass out small Dixie cups filled with grape juice for the prayer over the wine. I would sit quietly on the intricately carved wooden benches. The welcoming congregates, rabbi, folding chairs, and florescent light bulbs covering the ceiling provide me with a sense of warmth and community. When I lost interest in the service, I would gaze at the worn and dog-eared framed photos that lined the walls and reread the yellowed newspaper articles attached to the dusty bulletin board to reflect on the huge role this synagogue played in this community during the early 20th century. The comfort and security of my unsophisticated synagogue provides a sanctuary. Deborah Lacks, the daughter of Henrietta, finds a refuge of community and support in her church and from her cousin Gary’s faith healing. Religion has a significant and influential stronghold in both our lives. | Simone Bernstein Class of 2014 St. Louis, Mo. | F
5: Every religion has a tradition of seeking divine help for serious illness. Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus make pilgrimages to holy sites and shrines and perform special rituals. Jews have prayers for healing, while tradition also places God as an active participant in daily life. During each synagogue service, a member in the congregation will lead the congregants in the Misheberach, a healing prayer, asking God for help in times of suffering. While my faith uses prayer for physical cure and spiritual healing, it is in the Christian tradition that faith healing is most fully illustrated. Faith healing is the cure of sickness or disease by methods that invoke religious belief. Yet, even the author, Rebecca Skloot was wary of faith healing. Judaism also views the process with suspicion due to supernatural intervention. As Henrietta’s daughter Deborah struggles to understand the usage and purpose of the HeLa cell, her spiritual upbringing keeps her grounded. While the author and Deborah Lacks traveled together across the east coast to learn about the cells, Deborah breaks out in hives and finds therapeutic relief in the faith-healing process performed by her cousin and minister Gary Lacks. Gary uses faith healing on Deborah to remove the burden caused by HeLa cells on her body. Involving a “laying on the hands procedure” Gary transports all of Deborah’s worries learning about the cells to Skloot. This is a transformational moment for both Skloot and Deborah Lacks. Although, I may question faith healing, I value the comfort that prayers can provide. As I strive to define the role religion will play in my life, I lean toward a combination of my parents' explanations. My dad defines practicing Judaism as studying Hebrew, respecting the laws of the torah and commandments, and regularly attending services. My mom describes religion as being a nice person. I am somewhere in between. While my definition of religion is fluid, I am excited as I embark on my college journey at a Catholic university where Franciscan values are upheld and every religion is respected. Faith provides a huge sense of comfort in times of need and offers an incredibly supportive community.
6: Marissa Bruno Class of 2014 Williamsville, N.Y. | I have just finished reading “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” and determined I can’t close the book. It lies open to the last page of Henrietta’s story. My eyes swell with tears as I read the last paragraph, which I’ve read five times. Immortality, Deborah explains, is not what she wants; she has seen too much of that her whole life. She wanted her family’s story to be told. The latter conclusion brought me to tears. Deborah did not live to read Ms. Skloot’s book or to even see the after-effect the book would have on many people. After all the years of reporters, doctors, scientists, and conservationists who came for little fragments of the Lackses’ lives, Skloot’s book added closure, “setting the record straight” to a story that needed to be pieced together. As I read the book I envisioned myself as Rebecca Skloot, the super hero undercover reporter of Franciscan values. Before you ask how that even makes sense, let me explain. The whole book embodies the Franciscan values St. Bonaventure instills in its students to become extraordinary. Skloot “pursued knowledge to find truth” to what happened to Henrietta and her relatives, which allows her to “investigate” for answers. Skloot gave another intangible gift to the family, the gift of knowledge, which she did through the love and interest of the story. She was a super hero to the family seeking the truth about Henrietta’s life. Skloot does not let her powers get to her; she acts with the value of humility to the needs of the subjects in her story, unlike any other information-seeker in the Lacks family’s lives. The whole book reflects upon Skloot’s knowledge and wisdom. When I read it, I felt inspired to use these values in my writing and career as Skloot did. I have always known that I wanted to be a reporter but I could never quite pinpoint why. As a child, I told friends and family that I would grow up to be a reporter as I performed imaginary broadcasts. After all the college essays and English assignments, I continually struggled with explaining my concrete reasons for my dream career. During the middle of the book I realized why; I always wanted to help people but I could never quite explain my feelings without sounding cliché and bland. When Skloot drives Deborah to the first Henrietta Lacks convention, the elation of Deborah made me realize that I want to give people those strong emotions when I’m covering a story. As we see Deborah opening up to Skloot, I realized the power of information. Deborah wanted to learn about HeLa, not try to blame someone for the family’s hardship. | I
7: The search for valuable information is a major theme of the book. The Lacks family needed information as closure. When Rebecca Skloot came into their lives, she brought the urge to find the truth that the Lacks family did not know they had. The family had a right to all that information surrounding their mother’s legacy and Skloot gave it to them. Information gives closure. I want people to know things because they have the right to know whatever needs telling. What do I want to come out of my career? Knowledge: to viewers, to subjects of the story, and to myself. I want to tell people’s stories that are waiting to be told. I enjoyed watching the process of the Lacks family open up to Skloot. I can relate to the joy that comes from watching people open up to each other because I work as a YMCA camp counselor. I’ve come to know the children at camp throughout the summer and, at the start, they wouldn’t listen to me. Sometimes I was afraid to reprimand them, thinking they would never trust me. Now, I’m nearing my last week of my new experience of work and I feel as if I know these kids as well as their parents. How I know them now isn’t even the best part, but how I got to know them mattered most. When they revealed their little quirks, fears, dreams and personalities, I realized that no matter what home life and backgrounds they came from, I didn’t need to treat them differently than other children from more fortunate circumstances. The discrimination of Henrietta and the whole African American race shows how a family’s bitterness can change their lifestyles. Zakariyya held so much anger inside of him that this anger led him to jail several times. When Deborah visits Zakariyya with Rebecca to give him the HeLa picture, the reader sees another side of Zakariyya, a man who misses and loves his mother. Everyone has another side to their being. At camp this summer, my goal was to get that loving side out of every child, despite their troubles. We all have troubles and hardships. Today almost everyone has dealt with the struggles of losing a loved one to cancer. When I read the pages detailing Henrietta’s last moments, it was hard not to think back to my personal connection with cancer. I found those pages the hardest to deal with solely because the description sounded all too familiar. My closest was diagnosed with brain cancer two years ago. My family cared for her and I often found myself sitting at her bedside crying in her arms as she moaned in pain. My family was there on her last day watching her struggle and gasp for her final breathes. We all just sat there in a deep silence not able to intervene with the process. Your perspective on life changes when you watch someone die. Just like the Lacks family had no control over the rights of HeLa, everyone who has lost a loved one to cancer had no control on keeping the person with them longer. We all have felt the helplessness experienced by the Lacks family. “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” serves to ease the troubles of Deborah, Day, Zakariyya and the entire five generations of the Lacks family, including Henrietta herself. She would have been proud to know that not only did Skloot emphasize the importance of HeLa to science, but that every reader gets to smile at Deborah’s excitement to receive Elsie’s picture, see Zakariyya’s sentimental side, and even hear Sonny and Lawrence’s theories on how to sue for the rights of HeLa. Henrietta would have loved to know that the reader knows her family, too. She might have wanted to understand what happened to her and why she’s so famous to this day. Thanks to Rebecca Skloot, the story was told. Skloot’s super powers helped me understand why I have the need to uncover other people’s stories. She covered the story in honor of the family and I can only hope to report with such values to serve others. Isn’t that what we’re here to do anyway?
8: When I first set out to read “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot, I wasn’t quite sure to expect. Her life had sounded interesting enough when it was discussed during Orientation, but I wasn’t sure how a tale like that with so much science would be turned into an interesting book. However, once I began reading it, I was taken aback at just how interesting and captivating it was. Rebecca Skloot did a marvelous job of blending the scientific aspect of the story in with the gripping reality of how the Lacks family felt, and what they faced. This book really brought to my attention something that I had always taken for granted, cancer research. Throughout my whole life I had always heard of cancer research being done, but what did that mean to me? To be perfectly honest, it didn’t mean a whole lot at that point. I had no clue where any of that research had started, who had started it, or even how something as complex as that could be started. Reading this book exposed that very beginning of so much modern medical research, it is hard to even comprehend how many lives the HeLa cells have effected. | Mike Burud Class of 2014 Red Hook, N.Y. | W
9: I never even dreamt of the possibility that someone from so many years ago could in any way help my grandpa. My grandfather, Allen Carter, was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He lived for more than five years with the disease and his treatments of hormone therapy and nizoral extended his life and probably were discovered as a result of the research done with HeLa. He was a great man, having served in the Navy for 30 years. I really wish I had been able to spend more time with him, but I am grateful for the years I did have. Perhaps I can thank HeLa cell research for those years. If he had died when I was any younger, I probably would not remember as much as I do. I pray that he is watching over me. I’m not sure to what extent the HeLa cells are branching out, but I have a feeling that this one woman, Henrietta Lacks, could be responsible for the most helpful research of our time. It was terribly unfair what was done to the Lacks family — having no knowledge of what their mother’s contribution to science was. I’m very glad to see that there is now a foundation set up with its goals being to give a little something back to the Lackses. Within the next month I hope my parents will send a donation. Probably the most interesting part of the book for me was when Rebecca Skloot introduced and spoke about Telomeres. Telomeres are like little fuses or clocks on part of a cell that can show about how much more a cell can divide. When I read that I was just like, “Wow, now that is pretty cool.” This illustrates one of the many times the scientific aspects of the tale were explained well by Rebecca Skloot. I can see why All Bonaventure Reads chose this book. Not only is it educational but there’s a story here, too. And not some great fantasy world drawn up in a creator’s mind, but a real story tagged with real people and especially real emotion. And finally I’d like to say thank you for giving me the opportunity to read such a great book.
10: Tears filled the young daughter’s eyes, as her mother came through their kitchen door stumbling and struggling for strength on her husband’s arm. Almost as if she was collapsing, the mother gets comfortable in her seat as her daughter runs up next to her and gently kisses her pale white cheek. “I love you,” the daughter whispers to her mother, a phrase she proclaimed to her mom almost every time she got home from a chemotherapy treatment. The mother closed her eyes and gently replied back, “I love you, too.” This exchange of affection occurred after almost every treatment her mother came home from; while her mother sat nauseated and weak, the young girl would remind her mother of her strong love, hoping it would help get her through her battle. However, this time when the daughter said those three precious words from her heart it was not in hopes that it would help keep her strong through her treatments, but rather this time it was to celebrate and rejoice the struggle they both knew she had just overcome. For this day she had not just had any chemotherapy treatment, she had had her last. What a marvelous day it was! What a beautiful day it was! How would I know how precious of a moment it was? I know because that mother was mine and that daughter was me. Five years ago my mother was diagnosed with Stage Two breast cancer. When we found out we were all scared— we yelled, we panicked, we cried. Then, however, we became hopeful — for my mother took on her war against that disgusting disease like a wrestler against his biggest opponent. | Danielle Centone Class of 2014 Yorktown Heights, N.Y. | T
11: A year and half later, just as we had all prayed every night, my mother won her battle and was deemed “cancer free.” Saying my family and I were in a state of ecstasy would still be an understatement for the joy and bliss we received from those words — how it truly was a beautiful day. While reading “The Immortal Life,” and learning about Henrietta Lacks and her contribution to science, I became extremely personally connected to the story. I learned that Henrietta’s cells led to world-altering discoveries. When I read that Henrietta’s cells helped create chemotherapy, I was overwhelmed with emotion. For chemotherapy is what saved my mother’s life, helped my mother win her fight. They say giving up your life for the life of another is the most honorable tasks there is — and as I see it, Henrietta died so that my mother, and many other struggling cancer patients, could survive. My gratitude I feel toward Henrietta Lacks for that most honorable task is enormous. I am also very connected to this book because I have spent time working in a microbiology lab and have used cells for research that came from patients’ tumors and biopsy samples, just like Henrietta’s cells did. The summer going into junior year I interned at the Memorial Sloan Kettering lab researching a tumor suppressor gene. I had never thought about where my cells came from, or whom they might have belonged to before they became my cell cultures. | After reading Henrietta’s story, however, I became greatly curious about the lives of the patients whose cells I spent hours a day pipetting and interfacing. It made me look at my research in a completely different light. I wondered if the cells that I had worked with came from people who had allowed doctors to use their cells for research, or if they had been taken without permission like Henrietta’s cells had been. I wondered if the patients whom my cells came from had proper treatment for whatever disease they suffered, or if they struggled for proper treatment like Henrietta had to. I wondered if the patients whom my cells came from were still living or if they were living a legacy through their cells, helping researchers like me discover new amazing scientific breakthroughs. Because of Henrietta, I began to wonder a lot. I believe everyone should learn about Henrietta Lacks. Her story is one of true beauty and wonder. It teaches that miracles really do happen. Cells can become immortal. Mothers can be saved from cancer. Miracles do exist. Henrietta lives on through her cells every day to prove it.
12: During the summer, I joined 17 students from my high school on a two-week trip to China two days following (St. Bonaventure University) Orientation. I decided to read Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” to help pass the time on the long 15-hour flight to China. I honestly wasn’t really expecting to enjoy Skloot’s book at all. I couldn’t picture how a Southern tobacco farmer’s life could have any sort of relevance to mine as an 18-year-old college student. I continued to change my somewhat negative opinion throughout the course of the book. The book helped me view things from a more medicine-based standpoint. It opened my eyes to not only medical terminology but also to various medical landmarks throughout history that have greatly affected my life today. I finally started to feel a personal connection to Rebecca Skloot’s words about halfway through her book. One of the first connections I made was due to that fact that the majority of my mother’s relatives have all passed away due to some form or breast cancer. The book’s protagonist, Henrietta, was diagnosed with epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix, another form of cancer. | Cody Clifford Class of 2014 Binghamton, N.Y. | D
13: In my personal opinion, I feel both my family and Henrietta were not given the proper medical care and attention that they rightfully deserved. My ancestors, like Henrietta, were extremely selfless farmers who continuously put their families and work before everything else in the world. My ancestors and Henrietta both knew there was something wrong with their health, but didn’t seek medical attention until it was too late. The second personal connection I made while reading “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” was arguably the most obvious. The 17 other students on the plane, and myself, all had to receive at least four shots to be granted the privilege of entering China. Sitting there on the plane, I realized that none of us even knew the history of what our bodies were injected with a few days before. We didn’t know who invented these lifesaving vaccines or even how long they had been in existence. I finally came to the understanding that those four shots needed for traveling to China, along with the other vaccinations I have previously been given, had been openly connecting me to Henrietta for the past 18 years. Rebecca Skloot’s book exposed me to a field that I genuinely thought would be boring and too complex for me to fully comprehend. However, I undeniably think “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” was a highly educational story that people can relate to via receiving vaccines and from knowing someone affected by cancer like I have. I not only learned about interesting medical history that is rarely discussed, but also a heart-warming story. Henrietta Lacks was an innocent African American woman who truly changed my life and others’ with her immortality, and for that, I am eternally grateful.
14: Unfortunately, as a cynic might expect, the ability to use science does not automatically imply that the users are utilizing their own knowledge for moral reasons. The idea of science being used for a moral purpose, even for the benefit of humanity, but with no respect for the individuals who fall by the wayside as a result of hazardous and manipulative experiments is illustrated in the story of Henrietta Lacks, whose cells have managed to ignite medical breakthroughs, even if her descendants live in poverty in spite of the monetary potential of their mother’s contributions to science. This particular incident of moral ambiguity in science, illustrated in journalist Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” does not only display the personal struggle of a family with what some would consider to be the sins of science, it also serves as the perfect magnifying glass to examine an even deeper, and more global, problem: the conflict between the good of all of society and the rights of the individual. Science has a difficult decision to make when it must choose between respecting the rights of an individual and striving for what is best for society as a whole, and “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” brilliantly portrays one of the most important factors in making this decision; the idea of dehumanization. The age-old cliché “You have to break a few eggs to make an omelet” may be true in the kitchen, but when metaphorical eggs are replaced with living, breathing people with feelings and emotions, it is not so easy to simply suggest that some losses are necessary, such as the loss of an individual’s (or in this case Henrietta’s) rights. So, just as with every other deprivation of rights in history, the aggressors decided to change their perspective and make their target appear to be more of a specimen than a human being. The term “HeLa” may seem like an abbreviation only intended to save time in pronunciation, but by stripping Henrietta Lacks of her name, and effectively her tragic life and story, much more is lost than identity. To answer J. Douglas’s question of whether “[it would] be contrary to medical ethics in the HeLa’s coming-of-age-year to authenticate this name and let HeLa enjoy the fame she so richly deserves?” (Skloot 175), it would not be contrary to ethics, but it definitely would be contrary to the common practices of good business. | Kevin Cooley Class of 2014 Lakeview, N.Y. | The medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas took pride in solving philosophical qualms by presenting three opposing beliefs and pitting them against each other in order to reach a conclusion on the matter. Yet, in an attempt to prove or disprove the existence of God, Aquinas could think of but two arguments against His existence — the existence of evil and the ability of science to explain phenomena and solve problems that could only be explained or remedied by religion. Bearing in mind that Aquinas was noting the power of science hundreds of years before the Industrial Revolution, it is difficult, as well as incorrect, to say that science does not aid humans in solving the problems they are confronted with. | T
15: Commercializing HeLa cells as opposed to “the living breathing cells of Henrietta Lacks” reduces a brilliant woman to property, a notion that is chillingly similar to the idea of slavery as well as the derogatory racial terms that served a similar demeaning purpose to the word “HeLa” in the process of dehumanization. Although some would argue comparing the term HeLa to the “n-word” may seem a bit drastic, it is not too much of a stretch to imagine the two serving a similar purpose when it is taken into account that both terms deny the humanity of a living being and make it easier to view the recipient of the term as more of an object than a human. Skloot’s book serves as a perfect antithesis to the nonchalant attitude of most of the scientists monetarily benefitting from HeLa cell production, delving into the lives of the family of Henrietta Lacks in order to truly capture the reality of her personhood. Exploring the terrible mix of emotions Deborah feels as she comes to understand a darker side of humanity by her discovery of Elsie’s fate, and commenting on Zakariyya’s deliberate coolness toward the world until he begins to understand the reality of his situation, Skloot successfully paints the picture of the Lacks family and the impact, or lack thereof, the extraction of HeLa cells have had on them. But even taking into consideration that the privacy and rights of Henrietta Lacks should have been upheld, it is far too much of a step to completely side with the more fervent Lackses, like Lawrence and Zakariyya, against the scientists. To hold George Gey responsible for the poverty of the Lackses and every single one of their mishaps is completely unreasonable; his intentions were clearly for the good of the greater part of the population. “Not long after Henrietta’s death, planning began for a HeLa factory — a massive operation that would grow to produce trillions of HeLa cells each week. It was built for one reason: to help stop polio.” (93) is the manner in which Skloot describes Gey’s immediate actions following Henrietta’s death, and they are far from malicious. | Although some would argue that Henrietta’s rights and dignity were nonetheless violated as no one was informed of the removal and use of her tissue, with the behavior of Day Lacks, who can blame the scientific community for sacrificing the formalities on one instance in order to have a shot at stopping polio? Day gave Hopkins a very difficult time about autopsying Henrietta’s corpse, to what point and purpose would the scientific community “play by the rules,” so to speak, when they could easily extract the cells behind the scenes and do what they needed to do for society? Whether one sides with the greater good and empathizes with the scientists who saw fit to mass produce HeLa for the good of the world, yet still made a profit, or with the Lackses and their supporters who represent the individuals who can be stomped along on the way to the path toward a greater good, no objective answer can truly be reached. By failing to harness HeLa cells for the benefit of the world, technology and medicine would clearly suffer, yet the morals medicinal science was founded upon would be sacrificed if the scientists would choose the alternate route of harnessing the cells with no benefit to the Lackses, and the precedent would be set that this behavior is typical and acceptable in the medical community. This presence of such a paradox inevitably leads to the “blame-game” so to speak, and every party will take their turn pointing their finger, but no matter who is to blame and who overstepped their bounds, the entire situation boils down to one truth: Scientific development has no bounds, and consequently has no moral compass. The best society can do is act as they see fit by the morals they know to be true, and put the good of the whole before greed.
16: “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” is a story of struggle, as well as miracles. Henrietta’s cells have done so much for science, and so much for the human race. Without her cells scientists wouldn’t be able to do the tests that they do, or be able to know what they know. Maybe the way Henrietta’s cells were taken was wrong, but I know that I am thankful they were taken. Cancer surrounds us. Maybe your neighbor has it, or your florist; maybe your mayor, or your teacher. Maybe your mom has it, or your grandma. Maybe you are the one with cancer. My grandpa died from cancer when I was 8. Before my mom had me, she had skin cancer. My best friend’s mom had breast cancer. No matter where you look, cancer is present. Without Henrietta’s cells scientists wouldn’t be able to do the research that they do. Henrietta’s cells have allowed scientists to try out vaccines and cures, without harming the life of a human being. With the research, they have come up with numerous ways of prevention, cures, and vaccines. The cells have also taught scientists more about cancer, and then more they know the more likely they can find a solution to the problem. These solutions are what I’m thankful for in case I ever get cancer, or any other disease. In my opinion, this book had three themes. One was struggle, another was miracles. The other was family. The struggle is very apparent in the Lacks family. Even when Henrietta was alive, the family wasn’t rich. They had to work to eat, otherwise they didn’t eat. After Henrietta’s death, things didn’t get easier; they got harder. Her children now lived with someone who tortured them. This filled some of the kids with hatred, and evil. This evil would eventually lead to one of the children’s imprisonment. As the children grew old, they got sick. They didn’t have the money to afford their medication, so they just didn’t take them. | Joanne Kruchten Class of 2014 Caledonia, N.Y. | T
17: None of the children’s lives were easy. They dealt with issues like child abuse, spousal abuse, alcohol abuse, money problems, murder, and medical issues. Nothing in the Lackses lives was easy, and finding out about Henrietta’s cells didn’t make it better. The cells brought on greed, confusion, and pain. But through the entire struggle, one thing always remained the same: they had each other. No matter what, they were a family. Cousins were just as important as siblings. They were far from a perfect family. They didn’t always get along, and they didn’t always talk. But if anyone were in trouble, you would drop what you were doing and go help. In my opinion, this is how family should be. You should be close, and always have each other’s backs. There are too many little issues now that get in the way of the big picture. In my eyes, the big picture is that when everyone else walks out on you, you should always have your family to fall back on. The idea of family is totally different now than it was back then. Parents don’t care about their children. Kids trash their parents; some don’t even know who their parents are. There is divorce, remarriage and single parenthood. Reading about how close a family could be was refreshing, and reminded me of how it should be. After reading this book I have tried to break some of the controversies in my own family, just so we can go back to the way it was. The third theme was miracles. Henrietta’s cells are still alive and growing today. That in itself is a miracle. The vaccines and cures that the cells have helped find are miracles too because they help human beings live longer. Sometimes they get rid of the disease, and sometimes they even can help prevent someone from even getting the disease. Prevention of a disease is a miracle to me; it baffles me that a shot of something will stop me from getting sick. Honestly, I’ve never quite understood that. | Another miracle in the book isn’t really a miracle. It’s the way I believe the world should be, but the world is not that way thus making a small deed a miracle. When Henrietta’s children found out about her cells, her sons were mad that they didn’t get any of the money the cells were making. They tried to find ways to sue the hospital so they could get their share of the profits. Her daughter though, wanted to know about her mother and her cells. She wanted to know why they had taken Henrietta’s cells, and what exactly the cells had done to help others. She also wanted to know why nobody ever felt the need to tell them, or give Henrietta the credit she deserved. In today’s society everything involves money. How much will this cost me? How much money can I make off of this? While the world worries about money we forget about the little things: love, family, faith, knowledge, common sense, pure happiness, hope, and honesty. Even though Deborah couldn’t afford her own medicine, she was more concerned about finding out who her mother was than getting even with those who had “wronged” her. In a weird way, this book has shown me what is really important in life, and what is not. The cells and what they have done was important, not how they were taken or how much money they made. It’s about being a family when everything is falling apart, and knowing whom you can always rely on.
18: Dale Morley Class of 2014 Walton, N.Y. | When I first arrived at Orientation and saw that they were handing out books to all of the students, I must admit I wasn’t very excited. Although I do have the ability to read, I have never really taken an interest in many books, so I don’t read much. I could never wrap my head around the whole “reading for fun” concept. After finding out that reading the book and writing a reflection about it was our first assignment, this made it seem even worse. As the day went on, the Orientation leaders told us that this was really a great book and that it could interest anybody that took the time to read it. I assumed they were just saying that because they had to, and I didn’t plan on reading the book because they said it was optional. One day, I found myself doing nothing and was bored out of my mind. I looked around my room, looking for anything to do, and I spotted the book on my desk. My mother had been bugging me to read it because she said it was a good book and I shouldn’t start out college not doing my first assignment. So I picked up the book, flipped to the end and saw how many pages it was, let out a sigh, and began reading. Little did I know that when I first started reading, I would be drawn in and hooked all the way until the end. Part of the assignment was to write a reflection afterwards, explaining connections to my life. Initially, I was concerned that the book didn’t really connect to me at all. What did a middle class, Caucasian, teenage male have in common with an African American woman who had lived her life in poverty, growing up on a small Southern tobacco farm, raised by her grandfather after her mother died and her father couldn’t take care of her. | W
19: I had never experienced anything like what Mrs. Lacks had. As the book went on, I was fascinated by her story and even interested in the science, but I couldn’t make any connections to my life or myself thus far. This woman had gone through a terrible battle with cervical cancer and later lost the fight. Her family lived in poverty while the doctors that worked with their mother’s cells made millions. They were scammed and stolen from and deceived and couldn’t do anything about it. They encountered doctors and scientists that claimed to want to help them, but really they just wanted to use them for their benefit in their respective fields. At one point in the book, it seemed they couldn’t trust anyone. To my knowledge I have never been taken advantage of or exploited in this way. At points, I thought the book would end with Rebecca being denied by the family and never concluding her research. The Lacks family may have felt as I did, “What can this lady possibly have in common with us and why would she care about our story?” But the story and the book surprised me. The book really made me realize how blessed I am and it gave me a little taste of what some people have to struggle through in life. It wasn’t until the end of the book that I could make a concrete connection between the book and myself. The connection was a small one, but an important one to me. Toward the end of the book, Henrietta’s daughter Deborah has a stroke in church and her grandson Davon had to stick by her side and get help. Deborah ended up in the hospital. When I was young, my grandma got sick and ended up in the hospital. I can remember sitting by my grandma’s bedside in the hospital and just hoping that she would be OK. In the book, Davon sat with his grandma while she was in the hospital and it brought back the memories of when my grandma was sick. Deborah recovered and lived for a while longer, as did my grandma. I could relate to the closeness and relationship between Davon and his grandmother. I was worried that I’d come up short on my first college assignment. I had struggled to make a connection to “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” and then it hit me. What does a teenage boy from Walton, N.Y., have in common with an African American woman who died over half a century ago? Cells. The very thing that makes her famous is what we have in common. We’re all made up of cells. She’s a human being like I’m a human being. When we peel away skin color and take away belongings and geographical location and all that other stuff, we’re all really the same at our core. I think this is a good connection to make. Instead of the differences, it’s the similarities that unite us. One thing I learned from this assignment is that you can’t judge a book by its cover, literally and figuratively. This book helped me to get a new perspective on books and life.
20: When I learned that we were assigned to read “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot, a work of non-fiction based in science no less, I feared hours of dry, boring, tedious, terminology-filled text, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that was not the case at all. Instead I found myself engrossed in Henrietta’s and the Lacks family’s story and the engaging profile of the history and evolution of medicine and its treatment of African Americans and of American society. I was amazed by the many layers that are present in Skloot’s story — from the scientific to the social, to the historic, to the religious, to the meaning of and loyalty of family, to the humanity, and to the details (even the smallest) that brought the story to life. All these layers made for an inspiring and insightful read that gave much to ponder. | Courtney Robinson Class of 2014 Binghamton, N.Y. | W
21: “The Immortal Life” touches the heart and soul and makes its readers question their beliefs and morals, in a good way. It encourages one to examine those beliefs and morals, and how they have conducted themselves in accordance with them — past, present, and future — and it makes one appreciative. For me, the story especially made me appreciate my family. While doing the study guide there was a question that asked us to trace our family’s education tree (chapter 31). I began by first writing out my family tree, and I came to the realization that I didn’t even know the majority of my great-grandparents’ first names, or my great-grandmothers’ maiden names — simple family facts. It was sad to know I did not even know this simple family history. Why didn’t I? Why don’t I show pride in my family’s history, especially when, unlike the Lacks family, I have the means to know more? My family history isn’t hidden or unknown. Others know it and are more than willing to share. I should value that more and not take it for granted. I am going to try harder to do this in the future. I am lucky, gifted, and blessed by my family, knowledge, and education. I have been granted a comfortable life with material things and a family who loves me and would do anything for me. I have never experienced racism or discrimination. I trust those around me, including doctors and strangers, and have never been given reason to doubt them. I have knowledge of God and know his presence and love. I must not forget these things, or take them for granted, for they are a great foundation for a great life. “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” has had me look at my life with a new light and view it with more appreciation for what I have been given, and to not take it for granted because I have it pretty good. I need to not forget how blessed I am.
22: There are times in our lives when we realize what we were meant to do. We have a happy moment, or a moment of inspiration that makes us see how important our lives truly are. “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” shows we all have a significant purpose, whether it is helping a family uncover the mystery of a lost loved one, or creating a million dollar industry that saves lives. It reveals that everyone can make a difference in his or her world, even if it doesn’t seem magnificent to us. In the book we see the effect the author Rebecca Skloot had on the Lacks family. She was able to not only write about the woman who stole her curiosity (and heart), but change the family’s perception of what the science industry was doing with their mother’s cells. She gave the Lacks family members a whole new understanding, and helped them comprehend the complexity of what happened to their mother. In a way she gave them new hope, a sense of having something they never did before. To me, Rebecca Skloot gave the Lacks family a renewed life that was no longer filled with despair and misunderstanding. From reading the story of Rebecca’s journey to uncover the mystery of Henrietta Lacks and her family, I was inspired to figure out the ways my life has affected others. From the time I was little until this present day there was one thing I wanted to do every day of my life — make my parents proud. Neither one of them had attended college, and for the first half of my life suffered the problems that come with being lower class. | Angelia Roggie Class of 2014 Seneca Falls, N.Y. | T
23: I wanted to show my parents that I could be something they would be sure they did right, something that showed how great a family they had raised. In a way, I wanted some of the things Deborah Lacks wanted for her mother, for people to know what I had done and to appreciate the things I was doing, not only for myself, but also for my family and others. With this attitude I became valedictorian of my senior class, and became an example for all my following peers and underclassmen. My name flashed across newspaper headlines and people everywhere were congratulating me. I had made an impact on everyone around me. It made me excited to know that I had done something extraordinary, not to mention making my parents prouder and happier than I had ever seen them. I had done something great for the Roggie name, and I had established a good reputation for our family in our small town, like Henrietta’s cells had done for her family. In a way, the book showed me that no matter how small or big my contribution was it was still important. Any moment is important if it makes you happy or creates something within you. When Henrietta spent her nights on the town, or playing in the house with her children, or being in the fields of Clover, those were the things that made her happy with her life; therefore they were the moments she forever cherished. In fact, I think Henrietta would have wanted those pieces of her life more than ever knowing that her cells were used to save lives. Sometimes, as I’ve learned with this book especially, it’s the little moments that matter. | The things we often take for granted in life are sometimes the best about being in this world. We tend to dwell on the parts of life that really don’t matter at all, when we should appreciate the simple things. In fact, Gary Lacks even said, “Sometime we care about stuff too much. We worry when there’s nothing to worry about.” (289). I believe this a key theme in the book that I can truly connect to. I tend to constantly worry about the silliest things, instead of focusing on the present and what is going right in my life. Rebecca Skloot’s book and the Lacks family taught me to let go, and cherish what I have here and now, because you never know when everything could change completely. In the end, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” was a book of real truth and life lessons I will forever cling to. It gave me the sense that I can do more with my life, and to not be afraid of fulfilling my curiosity when it comes to new ideas. Rebecca Skloot’s book gave me insight into the type of way I should try to live my life, with no regrets or cruel heart, but with determination and optimism in achieving my goals. Her own personal experience in trying to create the world of Henrietta Lacks convinced me that I can have the world I want for myself, if I am dedicated and persevere through struggling times. The world is out there waiting for me, I just have to go out there and discover what parts of it I want.
24: Before I glanced upon the pages of this book, many thoughts entered my head: Why do I have to read this? Who IS Henrietta Lacks? While completing this book, I’ve found the answer to this, but now even more thoughts float around my head. Questions about Henrietta, her family, and the debate between science and ethics left me wanting to read more and more, hoping that in searching through the book, I would find the answers. Quite honestly, this book did not shy away from tackling important but controversial topics and themes, including science versus ethics, the question of who owns our bodies, and even racism and its effects. The first theme that I encountered was the racism factor in the lives of the Lacks family. Author Rebecca Skloot mentions the Lacks family’s problems started with the fact that they were African American. The Johns Hopkins Hospital was the only hospital for miles that would treat black patients. And still, discrimination was rampant, as they had their own “colored wing,” where only colored patients could go. Johns Hopkins was one of the best hospitals in the country. Skloot writes about how in “white-only” hospitals, blacks would most of the time be sent out, even if it meant they would die in the parking lot. Nowadays, people would not tolerate that kind of discrimination and racism. But that was back in the Jim Crow Era, an era where it was okay for those distinctions in race. | James Tantalo Class of 2014 Penfield, N.Y. | B
25: Needless to say, later in the story, Skloot tells of the fear struck into the Lacks family when they are told rumors of doctors injecting black patients with STDs and other harmful bacteria and viruses, some of which are true. The black patients were often chosen to be tested because most of them (including the Lacks family) didn’t have much of an education. It’s incredible to read about the discrimination at the time when today I live in a world where racism is frowned upon. Back then, that Franciscan values taught by SBU would not have been understood or used. Back then, others were not seen as brother and sister. People had status on a social ladder, and those at the bottom were looked down upon. Everyone was not seen as equal, as was the entire foundation of the Jim Crow laws and segregation in general. How the world was viewed back then is totally different than the way it is viewed now. I think that not only with the research we have now, but also with no racism, Henrietta’s life may have been saved. Then again, we used her immortal cells to get such dramatic changes in science. I was very impressed with Rebecca Skloot. First of all, her love for the Henrietta Lacks story and her willingness and determination to flag down the family, friends, researchers, doctors, and radio/TV/magazine producers for information was invaluable in her effort to tell the world about Henrietta. Her countless hours interviewing and getting the true story is, by itself, a masterpiece. We see her struggles in the story, the unwillingness at first of the Lacks family to talk to her, and her problems locating any information on Henrietta. | It is uplifting to see that she created a wonderful relationship with the family, especially Henriettta’s daughter, Deborah. Secondly, I’m impressed with the way she integrated science into her book. It seemed that scientific definitions just flowed together with the rest of the story, seamlessly fitting in with her way of writing. Although I am not a “science-lover,” I was able to enjoy the story. Her scientific definitions and additions not only added to the play of the story, but emphasized the meaning behind the story. Fully understanding Henrietta’s gruesome pain, so deeply explained by Skloot, along with the general descriptions of the doctors, her family, and Henrietta herself, made it seem like she actually was there. Her research was phenomenal, and it has produced a story unlike any other. “The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks” echoes many of the Franciscan values that will form my foundation at SBU, not only in education, but in life. The dignity and worth of each individual is important, because each one of us is sister or brother to everyone. Henrietta was not treated this way. But since she was not, her cells were able to grow, and those cells led to some of the most important discoveries in science and led to controversial debates in ethics and science that are still hotly debated today. Skloot’s story will become as immortal and Henrietta’s cells are.
26: “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” is a compelling book filled with situations that are still common in today’s society. Of course, the knowledge of cancer treatments has improved vastly and hospitals would never be in business if they were run the way they were back then, but it is the deeper themes of the book that hit me the most. I found themes such as the importance of family, never giving up hope, and exactly what the human race is all about to be what really made the book complete. I had an entirely different essay until only a few days ago when I found out my dad was diagnosed with cancer. It came as a shock to all of us. Like Henrietta Lacks, my father did not want to tell anyone. He wanted to keep it a secret until we absolutely had to know. He has told a few people now and is receiving nothing but support from everyone. He has finally realized, after some persuading, that the only way to get through this is to have help from his family. | Gabrielle Weir Class of 2014 Lincroft, N.J. | T
27: Even though the hospital is not as far for my dad as it was for Mrs. Lacks, he will still need people to drive him there and back when he goes for treatments that hopefully will not involve radium. Family is what is going to help him get through this rough time. Henrietta Lacks was a strong woman. While on treatment she never lost faith and believed she was going to get better. Her strong mind carried on to her daughter, Deborah, who never gave up hope about finding out exactly what happened to her mother and even her sister, Elsie. I can only hope my father stays as strong and determined as these two women. Hope is a powerful thing and once it is gone, there is nothing much to hold on to. However, it is hard to have hope while reading about the Tuskegee syphilis studies, the radium treatments, the Hospital for the Negro Insane, and how doctors never thought to give credit to the woman that the cells came from. Henrietta Lacks’ cells helped launch the field of virology, helped find a vaccine for polio, helped scientists freeze cells, and were used in cloning. However, none of the scientists ever thought to recognize the woman as a person, only as cells. It is heartbreaking to think that the human race is capable of doing so much wrong. I know I have nothing to worry about with how doctors will treat my father. I do find it very interesting, though, that so much has changed in such a short while. My dad will not go through what Henrietta or her family dealt with but it always helps to remember that our family will always be there for help and hope.
28: The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks” is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Henrietta is an incredible woman and the struggles she and her family endured are definitely a story worth telling. I also enjoyed being able to learn about the scientific aspects without feeling like I was reading a textbook. It was inspiring to read about Deborah Lacks and her persistence, despite everything, to discover what really happened to her mother. The first connection I make with this book was to the central theme of cancer. My older brother, Alex, was diagnosed with leukemia in 1996, lived with it for most of his life, and eventually died from it in 2004 at age 16. What I thought was really interesting when I was reading this book was that I recognized so many terms from growing up around the illness, but so much has changed since Henrietta’s time. For example, my brother underwent numerous radiation treatments, but today radiation is nothing like it was in the 1950s. They didn’t open him up and sew tubes of radium inside him. However, that is probably due largely, if not completely, to Henrietta lacks and the HeLa cells. | Carolyn Wozniak Class of 2014 Tonawanda, N.Y. | T
29: Cancer treatment today is incredible because of immense research that skyrocketed with the help of her cells. I look back and think of how many forms my parents had to sign, and I can’t believe they didn’t have all those consent forms 50 or 60 years ago. I also remember so many doctors and nurses who treated my brother and my family with so much respect, and were so helpful throughout the whole ordeal. They told us exactly what was happening the entire time and made sure we understood. It made me sad to read that Henrietta didn’t have all that when she was suffering from cervical cancer. She’s such a strong woman for going through that without understanding what was happening and without support from her doctors. When I started reading this book, I went into it thinking I’d be able to relate to everything Henrietta and her family would go through because my family dealt with cancer too. That was extremely nave of me. Henrietta endured so many more complications due to the lack of scientific knowledge of her time, and her family has had to deal with so much more than just her death. Sure, I think of my brother often, but I don’t have to suffer from lack of health insurance, or family members in and out of jail, or the constant harassment of researchers trying to get information from me for nothing in return. I’ve also never had to overcome any racial barriers to receive medical care or for my family to receive it. “The Immortal Life” hit me hard as I read all about the Lacks family’s struggles. At one point, Skloot was sitting in Lawrence’s living room listening to their story when he yelled, “It’s not fair! She’s the most important person in the world and her family living in poverty. If our mother is so important to science, why can’t we get health insurance?” | And I think he’s absolutely right, it’s not fair at all. I was in disbelief the whole book because I could probably count on one hand the number of doctors or researchers that approached the Lacks family with any sympathy, much less an apology. It’s so off-putting to read about all those people who never once thought of giving the Lacks family any benefits from the HeLa cells. It just isn’t right. “The Immortal Life,” in my opinion, has some similar themes to Sue Monk Kidd’s “The Secret life of Bees.” Lily, a young white girl runs away and ends up at the house of the Boatwright sisters, three black women, where Lily’s mother once lived. Lily connects with Deborah and her struggle of growing up without her mother, desperately wanting to know more about her. There were also some racial barriers for Lily who ran away to a town with a large black population just as there were barriers for Skloot, who did a lot of her research going from town to town that consisted of mostly blacks, many of whom didn’t want her around. I also saw a lot of June Boatwright in Deborah. In “The Secret Life of Bees,” it takes June a while to like Lily much less trust her, just like it took some time for Deborah to trust Skloot. Being able to make these connections while reading “The Immortal Life” really enhanced my understanding on an emotional level. “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” is a book I’d recommend to anyone. In fact, I think it’s a book everyone should read. Cancer treatment is what it is today because of the HeLa cells, and I’m glad someone finally told the real story of the woman behind those cells. Most of all, it’s a humbling story as it made me really sit back and think about my own life and how I’ve been affected by the great and immortal Henrietta Lacks.