Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman. Born Loretta Pleasant in 1920, no one knows how she became Henrietta (Skloot 21). As a child, Henrietta was sent to live with her grandfather and her cousin David “Day” Lacks, who she would later marry (Skloot 22). Day and Henrietta had five children together and Henrietta would regularly care for them and her extended family by cooking for them (Skloot 48). Henrietta enjoyed dancing and painting her finger and toe nails red (Skloot 50). Overall, Henrietta was an average African American woman of her time.
When Henrietta became ill, she feared medical treatment as she did not want the doctors to take away her ability to have children (Skloot 16). What Henrietta was not aware of is that the doctors took samples of her cancerous and non cancerous cells for George Gey, a researcher who wanted to grow human cells outside of the body. Later on in her treatments, Henrietta learned she was infertile, Henrietta did not know this treatment would cause this and if she was informed before, she would have not taken the treatment (Skloot 55-56). The fact Henrietta was not told about the possible side effects from her treatment angers me. I’m not sure if this was acceptable practice for all patients to be uninformed of side effects back in 1950, but knowing that would not be acceptable today makes me feel that everyone no matter when they lived should be informed of all possible side effects of any treatment.
Henrietta died in 1951 due to terminal uremia (blood poisoning), as cervical cancer had spread all over her body including blocking her urethra, which is how urine passes toxins out of the body (Skloot 104). Henrietta was only thirty-one years old (Skloot 3). Henrietta’s body was laid to rest in an unmarked grave beside her mother (Skloot 88).
Henrietta’s cell line is known as HeLa, (The first two letters of her first and last names). Henrietta was known as Helen Lane and other names when people reported on who the HeLa cells came from (Skloot 1). These other names were used to throw off journalists from getting Henrietta’s real identity. Due to not using Henrietta’s real name, her family did not know her cells were still alive (Skloot 126)
Henrietta’s cells have helped modern medicine such as developing the polio vaccine and chemotherapy (Skloot 2). Her cells were used to study cancers and sexual transmitted infections to name two of many illnesses that her cells were used for in the study of humans (Skloot 3, 67) Her cells have also been to space to see what happens to them in zero gravity (Skloot 2). Even though Henrietta’s cells are probably the most important discovery to the medical world, her family was never told about their existence and it angers the family that some individuals were able to make money off these cells, and they have never got a dime of this money (Skloot 11). Many members of the Lacks family have gone without health insurance at some point in their lives, even with Henrietta’s contributions to the medical field (Skloot 193) The anger of the Lacks family is understandable since Henrietta’s cells have done so much for the modern world and someone who was not family was able to make money from it. The only reason that I feel the anger of the family is unjustifiable is that in 1951 and up to at least 2009 when Rebecca Skloot wrote The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks it was not illegal in the United States to use a patients’ cells for research without informed consent. Also most Americans have their tissues on file somewhere (361). Seeing that anyone’s cells could have ended up being the HeLa line (under a different name of course) and that everyone’s cells have the chance of being researched on even today without the person they came from knowing makes it hard for me to justify some of the anger the family felt.
Reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks has influenced me to want to write a blog on segregated medical treatment during the approximate era that Henrietta lived in. Skloot writes about both Henrietta and her daughter Elsie being segregated at two different medical facilities. I want to learn more about segregation in the medical field, especially at the two facilities in Skloot’s book: Johns Hopkins Hospital and Crownsville State Hospital.
In closing, I leave with two bits of information that came out after The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was released. The first is a news report with interviews with The Lacks family and Rebecca Skloot.
The second thing I leave you with is a blog post by David Kroll. It is not Kroll’s personal experience that matters here, but that Henrietta finally recieved a marked grave and her family was able to celebrate her life.