Book Review: Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan

Title: Brain on Fire 
Author: Susannah Cahalan 
Genre: Non-Fiction 
Format: Kindle 
Year Published: 2012
Source: I purchased this book

Brain on Fire, Susannah Cahalan’s memoir of her difficult struggle with a mystery illness, is a fascinating exploration of medicine and survival.

Cahalan was a 24-year-old reporter for the New York Post. She had it all: youth, talent, love, and the beginning of a terrific journalism career. Then she suddenly started to act strangely. She was convinced her apartment was filled with bedbugs, the colors surrounding her became garishly bright, and she became paranoid. This started affecting her work and her personal life.

Diagnosed by one doctor as suffering the effects of too much partying, and by other doctors as suffering from a sudden and severe mental illness, it wasn’t until she started suffering violent seizures that she was hospitalized.


During the month that followed, as the doctors tried desperately to figure out exactly what was wrong with her, Cahalan became increasingly more ill.

She spent the month in the hospital, where she was occasionally caught on camera.

After more than $1,000,000 in medical tests, a very simple exam finally came up with a solution. She was suffering from a very rare malady.

After she made her slow process towards recovery, Cahalan decided to explore her lost month. There were some videos that the hospital camera captured, and they were hard for her to watch. She looks totally frightened and lost in those videos. Watching herself on video was like watching a stranger. She also interviewed her doctors and friends and family, because she has few memories of that time in the hospital.


She also may have saved some lives:


It is an excellent combination of medical mystery and reportage. I found this book fascinating and well written, and have already read it at least twice!

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Title: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Author: Rebecca Skloot
Genre: Non Fiction, History, Biography, Science
Format: Paperback
Year Published: 2010
Source: I purchased this book

Henrietta Lacks was a poor African-American woman who died in 1951 at the age of 31 from cervical cancer. She was treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, where it was discovered that she had an amazingly aggressive tumor and was in agonizing pain. While she lay dying, some of her cells, both healthy and diseased, were extracted from her for further use in research. This was done without her knowledge or permission, or the knowledge of her family. This was actually common procedure at the time. At the time, permission was not required.

Cells from other patients had not worked. Most cells will divide for a certain number of times and then die. But for some reason, Henrietta’s cells were amazingly vital and survived. Her cells were dubbed “HeLa”. HeLa cells were the first human cell line to prove successful in vitro, in test tubes or Petri dishes , which has had profound impact on medical research. For example, Jonas Salk used HeLa cells to test the first polio vaccine. They have also been used in cancer and AIDS research. HeLa cells were dubbed “immortal” because they could be divided an infinite number of times. They still exist, in various forms, today.


Henrietta’s family knew nothing about the HeLa cells until many years later. Here is where the story gets even more complicated: the original doctor, George Gey, seems to have had no bad motives. He was completely dedicated to medicine, and simply wanted the cells for further research. Gey freely donated the cells to other researchers. However, it was other companies who obtained HeLa cells who made money off of products invented because of the cells. Henrietta was forgotten or unknown to most of the scientists and researchers. While some corporations made millions, Henrietta’s family, while proud that her cells have helped countless others, have remained poor.

The whole idea of medical ethics is enormously complicated. Was racism involved? Was it because Henrietta was poor and black? Or was it simply in the interest of science and medicine? What about the companies who benefitted financially from the research? Are cells still harvested today without permission? The answers are not as simple as they may seem.

This book studies medical ethics, family history, racism, and poverty. Author Rebecca Skloot does a fine job in researching and setting forth her arguments. This book was obviously a real labor of love and she is passionately devoted to the subject. Skloot became so involved with the family that she set up a foundation to help them: The Henrietta Lacks Foundation.

If I have any quibbles about this book, it is that it is a bit too long. I did make my husband read the book. It is not at all the sort of book he usually reads, but he is a scientist and he found it fascinating.

I also highly recommend this book. It is not light reading, but it is undeniably intriguing and important.

Henrietta’s cells have helped many scientists and researchers develop new ways of dealing with disease. In this way, Henrietta Lacks has become truly immortal.

Disclosure: I purchased this book.