As part of blogging at Powells.com this week, I'm going to answer a few frequently asked questions about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
, and I thought I'd start with one that has Portland roots.
People often ask how I came to learn about the HeLa cell line and decide to write a book about it. I first learned about Henrietta Lacks when I was 16 and sitting in a basic biology class at Portland Community College (PCC). My teacher, Donald Defler, mentioned HeLa cells, saying they were one of the most important tools in medicine, then almost as an aside, he said, "They came from a woman named Henrietta Lacks, and she was black." That was the moment I became obsessed with Henrietta. I went up to Defler after class and started asking questions about whether her family knew about the cells (they didn't) and what her race had to do with them being alive, but he stopped me, saying no one knew anything else about Henrietta, just her name and her race.
Defler, being the good biology teacher he was, suggested I do some research to see if I could find any information about Henrietta Lacks. "Write up a little summary of what you find and I'll give you some extra credit," he told me. Several months ago, when I got the pre-publication proofs of my book, I called Defler and (much to his surprise) told him about how that moment in his biology class more than 20 years ago had started me on a path that ended with The Immortal Life. I sent him an advance copy and said, Here's my extra credit summary, Mr. Defler...it's a few decades late, but I have a good excuse: the information was really hard to find!
The scene of me learning about Henrietta Lacks for the first time in my PCC classroom is in the prologue of the book (which you can read online here). But what's not in the prologue is the backstory behind why Henrietta's story grabbed me, which also has Portland roots.
The year I learned about Henrietta Lacks was the same year my father got sick with a mysterious illness no one was able to diagnose. He'd gone from being my very active and athletic dad to being a man who had problems thinking, and he spent all of his time lying in our living room because he couldn't walk. It turned out that a virus had caused brain damage, and he eventually enrolled in an experimental drug study (he's since written several books about his experience living with brain damage). Since my father was too sick to operate a car, I drove him to and from Oregon Health Sciences University several times a week and sat with him while he got treatments. I spent much of my 16th year sitting in a hospital watching my father and other patients be used as research subjects. In the midst of that, when Defler mentioned that Henrietta's cells had been growing in labs decades after her death, the first questions I asked were, Did she have any kids? How did they feel about her cells being used in research? And what did the fact that she was black have to do with any of this? I think I asked those questions in part because I was wrestling with the emotions associated with watching my father's experience as a research subject.