HeLa is the code name that was given to the immortal cells that can wrap planet Earth from one end to the other, not once, three times. Cells as heavy as all elephants that planet Earth has had in the last 10 decades. 50 million metric tons of one person’s cell. Cells that even as we speak right now, are growing, living. Living and growing to immortality.
Immortality. It is such a big word to us- mortal beings- that we can barely comprehend its entirety. A state in which a living thing exists millions and billions of years, endlessly. In the last few decades, the longest person who ever lived did not attain 150 years. Zaro Aga, even after being recorded as the world’s longest living person, did not celebrate his 158th birthday. Yet here, is a true case of a life that never ends. Imagine living for one century; that is just one hundred years. How about two? Seven? One hundred centuries? Seeing the world revolve and evolve? Just imagine living forever, never being afraid of death, never dying in fact, and just living to live. Forever. How long is forever? How definite is an infinite life?
For once, forget about the mortal being you are. Forget about growing old and fearing what is inevitable for mortal beings. Forget about the fact that one day, your family and friends will plant flowers on the mold of soil heaped on your coffin, graved six feet underneath the surface. There in that hole, alone, skeletal, and empty, you will learn to cherish and digest the fact that we human beings are mortal.
Flowers will be watered by hands that miss your touch. And when the need to move on rises above being missed, the flowers will wither, grass will blossom, and you will be forgotten. Like everyone else who dies. And there is nothing you will do about it. Because you and I are subjects of physical death. Well, maybe there is something you can do at the moment. Something that will help you live forever till forever is too short. Become immortal. But how? How can you be immortal when only one person, since time immemorial, has attained literal immortality?
Her name is Henrietta Lacks. She is the woman who should have had the credits for your strong legs that play soccer and run to cheat, sometimes. Why? Because through her cells, the polio vaccine was made. Her cells that never stopped growing. Her cells that were illegally stolen from her without her consent or a legal representation. Cells that were kept in a petri dish and cultured in the lab. And they kept living even in conditions where other cells died instantly. Suddenly, humanity had discovered a lead to immortality. But the discovery could not be told. And the story of a black woman who had painfully died from cervical cancer would be cemented in her unmarked grave. The typical life of a black American in the slavery error. The story of immortal cells engrained in a peasant who was not only measured n basis of her skin, but also the nature of her gender. Until years later.
I will give you a little math here. You, however heavy or not heavy you are, you are a huge ball of cells. Cells are what makes us. They make the eyes you are using to read this on, the hands scrolling down whatever gadget you are using. On average, a single cell is 1 nanogram. So tiny that you cannot see a cell through the lens of your naked eyes. For an adult to be 70 kgs, they need to have 70 trillion cells. If your arithmetic teacher went to a good training college, then you can simply find out how many cells make up 50 million metric tons. 50 million, metric tons.
Sometimes, learning is as painful as not knowing. But even with this thought at the fingertips, a journalist spent her life preparing the story that was buried in the dangerous laboratories. Amid all the existing risks, she rummaged through the dilapidated history to prepare for the world an account of the life of Henrietta Lacks. She exhumed the cemented graves so that you can know what happened to the cells of a person who saved the world.
I am mean enough to tell you that, her cells, become a multi-million asset that was used in hundreds of countries. I will tell you that her cells have been used in time to discover vaccines that have saved billions of people. You and I part of them.
I will not tell you that Henrietta Lacks was black because you will accuse me of being racist. I will not tell you that where she was born, when she died and how she attained immortality. I will not tell you that her cancerous cervical cells that took away her mortal lie was the gate pass to her immortality. I will not tell you how she lived her life, what she endured at the Hopkins, or even the fate of her family.
Why will I not tell you?
Because if I do, I will rob you the chance of discovering it yourself.
Takeaway: Perhaps the best thing you will learn from the book is this;
That you must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, you must see in every person; a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, own source of anguish, with the same measure of triumph.
And a lot more, of course. Who knows?