Book #13: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

This is one of those books that you just can’t believe is really non-fiction.  Amazing, intriguing, and shocking are just a few ways to describe it.  The Amazing Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, is about a woman who’s cancerous cells were taken from her, without her consent, and used in medical research for decades.  In fact, it is very likely that they’re still being used.  

immortal lifeHenrietta Lacks was a black woman who grew up in Clover, VA (Clover no longer exists) in the years when segregation was still the norm.  In 1951, at the age of 30, she felt pain in her body so strongly that she felt it best to go to a doctor.  During the course of one of her visits, a Dr. George Gey had some of her tumor removed, along with some healthy tissue.  It should be noted that all this was done before informed consent was made law, when it was still considered ok for doctors to do as they pleased, especially when it came to “colored” people.  It is questionable whether the treatment prescribed by Dr. Gey actually helped Henrietta, or accelerated her death, but she died on August 8, 1951, her body riddled with tumors.

Well, she died, but her cells continued to live.  Her cancerous cells, that is.  Her normal cells died soon thereafter, but, as up till now not been seen in science, her cancerous cells grew, got stronger, took over other cells.  They were known by the name of HeLa, using the first two letters of Henrietta’s first and last names.  Along with informed consent, patient confidentiality apparently wasn’t big at the time. 

Soon, HeLa cells became world-famous and were being shipped to labs everywhere for various types of research.  While the cells became famous, her family- husband, children, siblings- did not.  They continued living in poverty, with hot so much as health insurance assistance from Johns Hopkins University (where Dr. Gey worked).

Several decades later, enter Rebecca Skloot, a 20-something who’s just found about about HeLa and Henrietta Lacks and has a fervent desire to get to the bottom of this story.  Before Skloot can even begin her research, she has to persevere in getting Deborah Lacks– Henrietta’s only living daughter– to converse with her.  It takes over a year, but Deborah finally opens up to Skloot, little by little.  

The story is centered on Deborah’s journey to come to acceptance with her mother’s cells, and the discovery of what really happened to her own sister, Elsie.  But it’s also about the rest of the Lacks clan coming to an understanding of HeLa.  

It’s amazing to think that there was a time when patients’ rights weren’t even a thing.  Even today, it’s questionable whether a person really has any claim to tissues taken from them.  The doctor/researcher might use them for some studies, find out that they’re a cure for cancer, and then get rich immediately, yet the patient or kin might not even become aware that it was their own tissue that found this cure.  Doesn’t seem right at all, does it?  Even if there were no laws, I’d hope that doctors/scientists/researchers would be bound by some moral code of ethics to look out in the patient’s best interest.  That sadly wasn’t the case for Henrietta Lacks.  

This book is an amazing tale of the Lacks family’s journey to understand what was taken from them, how they can deal with it, and how to best honor Henrietta Lacks.  I highly recommend you read this book.  I bought this book from the local library’s booksale because it thought I’d heard about a movie with this title.  So now I should go watch the movie while you go read this book! 

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I don’t want to be alone forever, but I’m in Montreal tonight.

I went, I conquered, I returned. My trip to Montreal was really fun, and my friend was very kind to host me for seven days (and two partial days)! I had been to Montreal once before, last August, with some friends, and we had been there for about three days. I’d gotten to experience the metro system there, as well as learn that their ATMs will only accept credit/debit cards with a microchip. Of course, my bank cards don’t have a microchip, and I don’t think any/many American cards do. Why must Canadians make getting cash so difficult??? What was frustrating about this trip was that I had to take a bus from the airport, but I needed cash because of the microchip-in-the-card issue, and the only place to get Canadian cash was the currency exchange. We all know that $1USD=$1.09CAD, yet that’s not what was posted at the currency exchange. The rate listed was unbelievable, as in unbelievably bad. According to those crooks, $1USD=$0.98CAD, and then there was a $5.99CAD commission for them on top of that. Ugh, disgusting. That was the only really, really crappy thing about the trip. Note to self: next time, exchange my money in the US!!

It would be tedious to post everything I did in chronological order, so I’ll just describe them as I remember them.

1)     Canada Day parade on July 1st. Canadians celebrate the anniversary of the day they were no longer ruled by France, but instead by England. Yeah, I don’t get it either. But the parade was still fun to watch, although it was really hot out.

 

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2)     Lady Gaga concert!!! July 2nd, Centre Bell. Back in April, shortly after I had booked my flights, I found out that Lady Gaga (who is totally awesome, but will never replace Britney as my #1) would be performing in Montreal while I was there. How cool is that??! So I started looking into ticket prices- turns out that the show was already sold out! But, fear not, there were tickets on StubHub. Good seats were looking pretty pricey, so I decided to hold off. In the meantime, I went to Vegas to see the legendary Miss Britney Spears (!!!!), and then came back to DC to see Lady Gaga’s concert at the Verizon Center. Lady Gaga’s concert, although I went by myself, was a lot of fun. So much fun, in fact, that I knew I had to see her in Montreal. So I watched and waited, and got two floor tickets for under $100USD (total). This was a new experience for me, which is great, because I didn’t want to see the exact same concert twice from the exact same perspective.

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3)     Parc Jean Drapeau. I went there three times. The first time, I swam in the beautiful, 50-m outdoor pool. The second time, my friend and I went to explore the Weekends Du Monde celebration, and ended up trying out trapeze! How crazy! The third time, we went to the beach for some open-water swimming. Ehhh, that wasn’t so pleasant. The water was cold, and full of bugs and seaweed. But at least I went, and now I know that La Plage isn’t all that great, but the native Montrealers seemed to be just fine (although most were just lying out on the beach).

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4)     I ate at three vegan restaurants and shopped at two natural foods stores. Although the restaurant prices seem to comparable to DC prices, groceries were a LOT more expensive, or maybe it’s just because I’m used to shopping at Whole Foods (of which none are in Montreal), and not at small businesses. Yes, Whole Foods is (relatively) inexpensive! The three restaurants I visited very La Panthère Verte, Café Verdure, and Propulsion Cantine Végétalienne. All three were pretty good, and it’d be nice to go back to them on my next Montreal trip, whenever that may be…

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5)      TamTam drum circle on my last evening in Montreal. It was fun to just dance around carefree. Not the kind of thing I usually do, where people are smoking whatever nasty stuff everywhere, but I figured I should just have fun.   DC also has a Sunday afternoon/evening drum circle, but I’ve pretty much never gone because it’s far for me, plus I never really knew what I’d do there. Montreal is the perfect counterpart to DC. I still doubt I’d go to Meridian Hill Park for the drum circle, but the convenience in Montreal made it an attractive option. I was just coming back from a raw vegan potluck Meetup in Jeanne-Mance Park and the drum circle was right there. Plus my friend’s apartment was only a short bus ride away (I could easily see her building from the park).

I did some other sightseeing as well, but I think those are the major points. Oh, the metro system there is very good! The buses run regularly (schedules are posted at almost every stop) and the routes make sense. I must have used eight different bus lines while I was there, many of them by myself, and I didn’t get lost even once. The bus system in Arlington (and probably DC as well) isn’t so easy to figure out. Or maybe it is, and I just need to use the bus more frequently. The metro trains also run very frequently; e.g. on the weekend, you might wait up to six minutes, but that seems to be the max. Although food and drink aren’t prohibited in the system (like they are in DC), the stations are all very clean. And extremely well-lit. A few escalators would behoove them, though. I’ve never really vocalized any anti-DC metro sentiments but, after today’s very tedious experience, I really think WMATA needs to take some tips from STM (Societé de transport de Montréal)!

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Book#12: Back to Work, by Bill Clinton

This latest book, while quite small and short, took me a while to read. Part of the reason is that I was on vacation for over a week (and correctly figured I wouldn’t have the time or desire to read), but the bigger reason is that it just wasn’t a story, as I would have liked. Back to Work, by Bill Clinton, wasn’t supposed to read like a story, but, silly me, I saw a book written by a Clinton and grabbed it. Now, I’m not saying that this a bad book, because it’s very informative, and Clinton obviously put a lot of thought into it, it’s just not, say, the type of leisure book you might read to pass the time on your commute (assuming you’re taking public transportation!).

So what is Back to Work all about? Well, Clinton talks about how our country, our economy, our collective well-being, has been crumbling under the hands of ardent anti-government interests. Obviously a Democrat, Clinton advocates for a strong government, but he also advocates for a strong private sector. He sees a balance between the public and private sectors as the only way to raise our country out of a rut and get us back on track to being the most successful nation in the world.

In this book, he presents several ideas which are very well thought out. He recognizes the need for Democrats, Republicans, and Independents to work together for the betterment of everyone, for us to adopt the “we’re all in this together” attitude and shun the “you’re on your own” mindset.

Even though the book was published three years ago, it’s still relevant to today. Barack Obama is still President, and Americans in general is still struggling with the weak economy. So the ideas presented here by Clinton are still important and necessary.

Reading about how people are struggling makes me very thankful that I not only have no student debt (or any debt, really), but that I also have a secure, well-paying job that I enjoy. Maybe one day that will be the standard, but right now it’s not, so I consider myself very lucky.

By the way, I just have to say that Bill Clinton is aging very well :) And the vegan diet is certainly helping. His cover photo looks very good…. just sayin’.

See what I mean?

See what I mean?

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Book#11: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, by Steig Larsson

So I finally got around to reading the third book of Steig Larsson’s popular trilogy!  The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest was a great continuation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire, which I reviewed here and here.  I found the previous two to be excellent books, page-turners that would keep me up late in bed reading, and this latest book was no exception.

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Hornet’s Nest (as you can see, I’ve shortened the title for the sake of brevity and to avoid tongue and finger fatigue) begins where Fire left, with Lisbeth Salander in a hospital with a bullet wound in her skull.  Mikael Blomqvist, her ever-present friend, is fiercely working behind-the-scenes to uncover and expose the truth about the conspiracy that led to her being persecuted.

This conspiracy, it turns out, is mind-blowingly huge, intricate, and covert, and centers on  Salander’s father, Alexander Zalachenko, who turns out to be admitted to the same hospital as Salander, just two doors down from her.  Salander, who is kept locked in her room, deduces this fact and prepares to defend herself in the case that he ever makes it into her room.

That never happens though…. but I don’t want to give the whole book away.  As a side note, it was nice to be reminded of Lisbeth Salander’s birthday: April 30, 1978.  Same as mine, just two years earlier :)  It makes me feel like I have a little bit of a connection to this cool girl.

All this time that Blomqvist is helping Salander, he is never actually able to see her or talk to her in person.  Through a bit of ingenuity, and the help of Salander’s doctor, Dr. Jonasson, he is able to communicate with her online, although that is there little secret.  And having online access allows Salander to do what she does what: hacking.

The hacking and the communication is all in preparation for Salander’s trial, since she is being charged with attempted murder of Zalachenko.  The trial is, to say the least, interesting.  Salander’s lawyer is Annika Giannini–Blomqvist’s sister– who isn’t a criminal lawyer but a women’s rights lawyer.  Everyone else seems to think (inlcuding Giannini herself!) that Giannini isn’t the right lawyer for this type of case, but Salander stands firm on her decision.  And, as you’ll see when you read this book, Giannini is definitely the right person to take on this case.

Is there justice for Lisbeth Salander?  Will she get over the hurt that Mikael Blomqvist caused her when she saw him with Erika Berger?  You’ll have to read this book to find out!  I’m telling ya, it’s a page-turner, and if you liked the first two books, you’ll definitely like this one as well.

My next book is one I picked up from the most recent Arlington Library book sale: Bill Clinton’s Back to Work.  I got the book for the sole reason that it’s Clinton is the author.  I gotta say, the man is aging well and his (mostly) vegan diet is working out well for him!

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Race review- Jamestown International Tri, June 7, 2014

So, my first complete triathlon in… almost two years!  I wasn’t going for any sort of goal other than finishing, and hoping to do decently.  Either everyone in the field was really, really fast, or I was just really slow.  Or both, which is highly likely.

I had gone home to Hampton the weekend before, so it was interesting not only packing for a tri after not having done one in so long, but also packing a week in advance, and knowing I’d be screwed if I forgot anything.  I might have been Google-searching in vain, but I couldn’t even find a place in Hampton Roads where I could rent a road bike.  (side note: transporting by bike from Arlington to Hampton was somewhat of a predicament)

Well, the good news is that I did not forget anything!

On to the race itself…

We (my parents and I) ended up leaving home half an hour later than planned (thanks, Dad!), which meant that by the time we got to Jamestown, I was rushing around frantically to get my bib and chip, and put my bike together, and get my stuff set, all before the transition area closed.  And that was…. not very much time at all.

It was a somewhat long walk to the swim start and then, while waiting for the race to begin, I realized that my driver license and USAT ID were still in my pocket.  Oops.  Better just hope for the best!  They ended up surviving, which is a relief.  Not that I drive or anything, but I wouldn’t want to end up going to the DMV for a new card two years earlier than needed.  And I’m sure the USAT card could have been easily replaced.

The race website had posted a couple days before the race that the water temperature was 78 degrees.  Great, no wetsuit!  Race morning, while I’m setting up, I see lots of people in wetsuits (seal suits, as my parents call them) and one woman said, “I didn’t think I’d need this today.”  Uh oh, did the water plummet to 65 degrees?  I asked someone the current water temp, and he said 75 degrees.  75 degrees?  Not that I spend much time in open water, but does that really warrant a wetsuit??  Even if mine hadn’t been packed away in the trunk of our car, I wouldn’t have worn it because any time saved on the swim would be more than compensated for while I’d struggle to remove the darn thing.  It really is comical.  It always get stuck around my feet, ugh.

The water felt comfortable enough when I got in, and I felt I’d made the right choice.  Or so I thought.  I’d find out later that I was a fool for forgoing the wetsuit.  But a happy moment came as I was waiting for my wave to start.  Guess which song started playing on the loudspeakers?  Yeah, you guessed it, “Work Bitch”.  I love me some Britney any time of day or night, and at a race is even better!

So the swim was ok; we were told that we’d be swimming with the current.  No rough water, and not salty either!  But my lack of buoyancy, coupled with my already-meager swimming skills meant that I was waaaay behind everyone else.  Story of my life.

Getting out of the water and running back up to transition felt good, though when I got on my bike, my legs felt like dead weights.  Wow, what is wrong with me? I thought to myself.  Nearly all the bikes were gone by the time I got there, so this 40K jaunt was pretty much like a training ride.  Every now and then someone would zip by, but I just couldn’t get my legs to move.  On the plus side, though, I didn’t have to worry about drafting, wheels crossing, etc.  I realize now that I felt dead because my legs had been working so hard during the swim to keep me afloat.  Silly me… I should wear a wetsuit not for the warmth, but for the buoyancy.  And don’t kick so much.   Mainly use my arms and just let my legs glide.

The bike course was mostly flat, except for the one hill around Mile 10 when we crossed the Chickahominy River bridge.  Other than that, it wasn’t too eventful because there just wasn’t anyone around!  And I kept cursing my legs for feeling like dead weights.  This is was happens when you don’t do a triathlon in a long, long time.  You forget important tips race-day tips.

Once I finally got back to transition after the bike portion, people were starting to finish the race!  Noooo!  Well, I just sucked it up and started my 10K.

By this point in time, the air temperature was pretty warm, so I grabbed a water bottle.  I didn’t want to have to rely on some very spaced-out water stations, plus I always get really thirsty.  I chugged along, since my legs were now doubly-blasted, not going very fast, but not stopping to walk.  I felt like I should be better trained for this kind of race, because I’ve done lots of Olympic-distance tris.  But nope, I felt like I was a beginner again.  Oh well, if you don’t use it, you lose it.  More motivation to train, smarter and harder.

The run was half-shady, half-sunny and I’d occasionally see another runner or two and try to pick them off (and succeed!).  Towards the end, I didn’t know which way to go- whether I was supposed to turn at the arrow or keep going straight ahead.  So I backtracked a bit and asked a couple of women behind me.  Keep going straight, they said.  Then it made sense; that’s where we had started.  But in my tired mind, the memory had been very hazy.

And then the end was in sight!  Was really nice was to see my parents out at the side of the road waiting for me, my dad with his camera in hand.  My mom even jogged down the road for a couple of seconds, not in attempts to cross the finish line with me, but because she was happy to see me.  And that’s really touching.  I love my parents for being so supportive of me.  They might not be the biggest enthusiast of me doing all this training and racing, but they would never leave me on my own.

As a race approaches the finish line chute, they like to hear their name being announced.  My name was announced and people cheered.  Or should I say, my “name”.  It was such a disgusting bastardized pronunciation of my name that I think I visibly cringed.  My name obviously is not American.  Why then to people apply the rules of English in pronouncing it?

As I see it, I don’t have any reason to be embarrassed.  It’s stupidity on other people’s part.  Oh well.  I got my medal and that’s all that mattered!  And then I packed things up and we hit the road to head back to Arlington- home sweet home :)

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Book#10- The China Study, by T. Colin Campbell and Thomas Campbell II

So here is a book I’d read previously, but I knew that it contained so much good information that it deserved a second reading!

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Much as I had said for Meatonomics, I highly recommend that everyone read this book, but especially omnivores.  Even vegetarians who consume dairy and eggs need this information.  Even vegans who tend to eat junk food should be reading this book.  And even those vegans, such as myself, who already eat healthily should read The China Study so that they have all the scientific information to properly respond to ignorant comments such as, “But where’s the protein?”

Authors Campbell and Campbell II (I’ll just refer to them as “Campbell”, in the singular, from now on) do a very good job of fully describing the role of diet in disease occurrence. Especially the “Western” diseases, such as cancer, heart attacks, diabetes, etc.  The disease of affluence.  These diseases are not, as doctors and pharmaceuticals would have you believe, chance events that can happen to anyone.  And one does not “prevent” diseases by taking medications to lower cholesterol or blood pressure.  Oh and by the way, there can be side effects like excessive bleeding, suicidal thoughts, diarrhea, etc.

I never watch TV when I’m at home, but since I’m visiting my parents this week, I’ve watched some “Jeopardy!” and such, and there are so many drug commercials!  My goodness, if you hadn’t already read books like “The China Study”, you’d think that our bodies are just ticking time bombs, and that any of us could need any variety of drugs to keep ourselves healthy!  In reality, all you really need to ward off these diseases of influence is a healthy diet.  Lest it be forgotten, which it has been, Hippocrates, the father of medicine, stated, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”  Sadly, this message has been forgotten, thanks to greedy, money-hungry pharmaceutical companies who not only want to peddle their products, but they’ve influenced medical school curricula to such a degree that nutrition is barely even touched upon.  Instead, med students learn what drugs are used to “treat” what pain/disease.

Campbell talks about all this, and so much more, in his book.  Going back to the Western diseases, what brings them about?  Let’s take cancer as an example?  Is the mere existence of a carcinogen going to give us cancer?  Not likely.  The carcinogen is first converted into a more reactive product with the assistance of an enzyme, by which it can then attach to DNA and change the DNA’s structure.  Campbell likens this process to that of growing a lawn: initiation, promotion,and progression.  Initiation- planting seeds/introduction of carcinogen.  Promotion- grass starts to grow/carcinogen is metabolized. Progression- grass becomes out of control, growing everywhere/highly-reactive carcinogen attacks DNA and multiplies.  Campbell’s studies have shown that, far and wide, animal proteins “turned on” these carcinogens to convert them to a more reactive form.  Lowering one’s consumption of animal protein lowers the risk.  Completely eliminating animal proteins from one’s diet is that best step one can take for disease prevention.

There’s a lot of good information in this book, and I could go on and on and on.  But let me just touch on one more point, and that’s the theory of reductionism, or thinking that the key to health is obtaining individual nutrients and vitamins, such as Vitamin A.  We generally know that calcium helps maintain strong bones and teeth, and iron is needed for healthy blood.  But taking pills to get (mega)doses of these individual nutrients doesn’t lead to optimal health.  Campbell stresses that obtaining nutrients directly from the source is key, since there’s no one nutrient we need to the exclusion of others; rather, it’s the way in which nutrients work with each other that help us to thrive.

Bottom line: a whole foods, plant-based diet is your best bet live healthily and happily, maintain a healthy weight, stave off disease, and save money.  Read the book and try it out!

My next book will be Steig Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, the third in his trilogy.  I’ve read both the first and second, and found them to be great.  I’m sure this last book will not disappoint, either!

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All good things must come to an end…

To say, “I haven’t driven a car in eight years!” would have had a nice ring to it.  To say, “I haven’t driven a car for seven years, eleven months!” sounds… I bit too precise.  On the flip side, it’s a little less pathetic than going eight entire years without driving.

What am I getting at?  Yes, that’s right, I drove today.  Drove.  A car.  Just on small residential streets, with my mom as the dutiful passenger, but it’s certainly a milestone for me.

Keep in mind that I’m not wanting to have a car or drive all the time.  Absolutely not.  But I figure since I’m 34, I should at least be a little more self-sufficient, rather than always rely on someone else to drive me, or forgoing an event because I can’t get there by bus/Metro/bike/etc.

I know that my few minutes of quiet, traffic-free driving were not representative of what I would encounter in a typical driving situation, but the one big thought I had, “This is easier than riding a bike.”  I’ve biked up and down hills, on narrow, ill-paved trails, on big/busy roads, and, although driving a car isn’t very fun or energizing, it’s MUCH, MUCH easier that I had expected it to be.

So hopefully I’ll get a bit more practice while I’m chilling at home with my parents this week, and then I’ll do the crazy and apply for a ZipCar membership.  I know it’s pretty pricey, but I just like the convenience factor.  I’m not reliant on the hours that a rental agency is open, and my membership is good around the world, wherever there’s a ZipCar hub.  (Psst, ZipCar is in Montreal and Las Vegas, both of which are places I’ll be visiting in the coming months.)

I don’t see myself renting a car often, but I think it’ll this membership will be good to have.  Just another way to make myself a little more autonomous and “grown up”.  BUT…. that doesn’t mean I might not still want to carpool with you if possible!

P.S.  One day when I have LOTS and LOTS of money, I might get a Tesla, haha!  Though I have to say, it’s a very nice-looking car AND it’s electric!

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