Last week the Senior Moments Book club met to talk about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Every meeting I find myself wondering if anyone is going to show up! I was particularly anxious this month as my father turned in his copy of the book early on. He just could not get into this book. Fortunately many did read the book and those who didn’t were interested enough to come for the discussion. Close to thirty, 80 plus year old seniors showed up to join in, as well as Barbara and Dana two of The Friday Morning Bookclub members.
As always, We started the meeting with one of the residents reading a short biography of the author and then I presented a summary of the book. My biggest challenge continues to be how to give enough details so that those who have not read the book can join in the discussion, yet keeping it as short as possible. This usually involves rereading the book while taking notes and then a lot of editing. Cut this out, cut that out…..cut anything out which is not essential to the story.
The residents are always happy to help out by reading out loud one of the discussion questions printed out for them in large print. This gives everyone an opportunity to participate and seems to help get things going! After all the whole goal is to get them talking.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is two different stories in one. There is the scientific story, involving the growing of HeLa cell, cells which have been instrumental in many medical achievements such as the development of the polio vaccine, the advancement of cloning and in vitro -fertilization, and then there is the human story. Here we have a poor black women who was treated for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins medical center which is only minutes away from where many of the residents grew up some sixty years ago. I had hoped that this Baltimore connection would enhance our discussion and I was not disappointed.
Many of the residents shared their stories, growing up in Baltimore in a time when there were colored bathrooms as well as water fountains. One woman grew up in the south and had not met a black person until she was in high school. Although they became good friends it was unheard of to invite a person of color to your house. A couple raised in New York were appalled at such a story. Many of the residents talked about how this was” just the way it was in those day” and all were disturbed reading about the treatment of the black community. We talked about consent forms and agreed that few even bother to read them. We talked about the ethics involved in the use of samples taken from a patient with or without consent. We questioned whether Henrietta would have given consent had she been asked. We talked about whether patients should be able to benefit financially from the use of their cells and for that matter whether the doctors or labs should be able to. We discussed how doctor patient relationships have changed over the years and how socioeconomic differences still play a part in how patients are treated.
Once again this group of seniors have shared their stories and thoughts and have taught me more than any book possibly could and once more I am concerned as to whether anyone is going to read our next book…and for good reason. Our next book is When She Woke by Hillary Jordan. When She Woke takes place in the future. A future where abortion is considered murder and there are no jails. Not only is Hannah Payne found guilty of murder for aborting her unborn baby, but she is also guilty of refusing to turn in the doctor who performed this illegal procedure. Her sentence? She will be Chromed….. her skin will be genetically altered to bright red. Not your typical senior read, but one that I hope will generate an interesting discussion! Please join The Senior Moments Book Club in reading When She Woke!