Many book groups have discovered the special qualities of Rebecca Skloot’s prize-winning book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. It has a riveting story, complex and realistic characters (including the author), and a lively pace in spite of all the science. Not to mention numerous angles that make the book a great fit for most book groups.
The staff members of the Children’s Mercy Hospital Social Work and Community Services Department mentioned all of the above elements when discussing The Immortal Life for their staff meeting recently. But they also brought something more to the discussion since many of the issues raised in the book are issues they tackle every day.
Almost all of the readers admitted they would not have chosen The Immortal Life to read on their own. “It’s too similar to our work,” one social worker said. “I like to read to escape from my job,” said another. But all were glad they’d read Henrietta and Deborah’s story and all enjoyed it.
The counselors said that the disparities between economic classes and races that Skloot chronicled are still prevalent. This lively group also discussed the cultural perceptions of medicine held by many African-Americans and admitted they are still trying to work through these barriers on the job. A few noted that it’s even more difficult to gain trust when the patient is a child and the parents are already inundated with so much medical and insurance information, not to mention the stress and emotions that go along with a health emergency.
They pointed out instances in Deborah Lacks’ responses to medical personnel and said they completely understood her frustration and anger. The counselors were also quick to discuss the issue of privacy and ownership of medical records and body parts.
The group praised Rebecca Skloot’s willingness to go outside of her own comfort zone and her tenacity and respectfulness with the Lacks family. The social workers noted that these are qualities that are necessary in their own profession and appreciated the thoroughness of Skloot’s research and honesty in portraying everyone’s attributes, both good and bad.
The discussion concluded with a reader saying, “This book is a great reminder for everyone in the medical profession to remember what we are doing and who we are doing it to.”