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Essay: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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  • Subject area(s): Literature essays
  • Reading time: 5 minutes
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  • Published: 2 October 2015*
  • File format: Text
  • Words: 1,481 (approx)
  • Number of pages: 6 (approx)

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In the beginning of the book, right after Henrietta gave birth to her daughter Deborah, she feels something wrong in her womb. Henrietta says that this pain feels like ‘a knot inside me’ in which her friends and family tell her to visit a doctor. Henrietta does not listen and in the next few months, she has another baby. Because of her pregnancy, her friends believed that the pain can be due to this but still Henrietta claimed that nothing was wrong. After giving birth to her fifth child Joe, Henrietta begins to experience vaginal bleeding in the inappropriate times that she should not have. As she takes a bath, she inserts her finger deep into her body (prefer not to say, specifically where). She feels a hard lump. Now worried, her husband drives her to a gynecology clinic. Her husband takes her to John Hopkins hospital in East Baltimore. This hospital was much farther away than the ones closer to her home, but this was the only hospital that offered treatment to black patients. The doctor who was on duty is Howard Jones, who listens to Henrietta’s problems as well as take note that she has a long list of untreated medical conditions. Howard Jones decides to take an examination of Henrietta, and discovers that she has a cervical tumor that was about the ‘size of a nickel.’ Howard Jones takes note that the tumor must rapidly divide at a fast rate because when Henrietta was giving birth a few month earlier, the doctors would have not missed the tumor.
A little background information about Henrietta is that she was born in 1920. She moved to Virginia in a city called Clover in 1924 when her mother died. Her father decides that the responsibility of ten children is too much and he decides that it is best for his children to split apart to nearby relatives. Henrietta was placed with her grandfather who lived in a four room cabin that was once occupied by slaves. When Henrietta was young and at the age she went to school, she was very popular. Specifically because she was very beautiful. She caught the attention of many boys in her grade. Due to her appearance, she and her cousin Day, start to have children together since they shared a room with each other when they were kids. Henrietta had her first son, Lawrence, when she was only fourteen years old and a few years later, she has a daughter, Lucile. In the book, the author says that Lucile was epileptic and mentally retarded. Two years later after Lucile was born, Henrietta and Day marry. In order to produce enough money for the family, Day and Henrietta work in the tobacco fields for a short time. Due to the U.S. involvement in World War II, they leave the tobacco fields, and head elsewhere for different jobs. The war brought new opportunities for the family and in result, Day and Henrietta moves to Turner station to work in a steel mill.
Henrietta’s gynecologist finds out that her cervical tumor turns out to be malignant. This happened on February 5, 1951. Quickly, Howard Jones informs her, but Henrietta still hides her diagnosis from her friends and family. Henrietta goes to the hospital for a few days in order to do treatment and testing. She signs a form that gives the doctor’s permission for them to do any operative procedures that they believed were necessary to do, but this was intentionally very vague. Shortly after checking in, the doctors do a bunch of test involving the usage of radium as well as cutting two small pieces of tissue from Henrietta’s cervix. Her cervix was going to get cut without her being informed in order for the doctors to have some samples. One of the samples was healthy tissue while the other was the malignant tumor. The samples were taken to George Gey without Henrietta’s consent in order for some testing and analysis. George Gey does some testing and realizes that the cells double in 24 hours and somehow do not die. Henrietta’s cells are immortal. George Gey names the cells HeLa from Henrietta Lacks’ name and shares this news with his colleagues. George Gey hoped that he could create a cure for cancer, but all of his attempts had failed. Gey discovered that her cells cannot die and are immortal still to this day, Henrietta’s cells are dividing. Henrietta’s doctors believed her treatments were a huge success and that the cancer was gone despite Henrietta’s continuous pain. By the time the doctors started to examine Henrietta more, there was a huge, inoperable tumor in Henrietta’s abdomen that spread so rapidly. The doctors increased her radiation therapy and eventually hospitalized her, but the pain grew worse and worse, and the time quickly swept away.
One of the problems was that no one was able to successfully grow cells outside of the body in 1951. One of the key problems for this was finding a suitable culture medium as well as the procedures taken were not very sterilized which cause culture contamination. Rebecca Skloot, the author of this book, believes that the only way to tell Henrietta’s story was to get the cooperation of the Lacks family, in order to get their consent that this story was alright for her to make. She calls Dr. Roland Pattillo for help. Dr. Roland is very hesitant to help until Rebecca makes it clear about how she knows how African Americans have been medically mistreated over the years. He eventually gives Rebecca the number of Henrietta’s only living daughter, Deborah. As Rebecca makes some phone calls to Deborah about her project in creating this book for her mother, everything seems to go well until the second day when Rebecca had to talk to Day. When George Gey revealed that he created an immortal cell line, he received very little interest because in the previous years, many false reports and accusations were accumulated. Once the news about the HeLa cells got out, the press wanted to do stories on the woman behind the cells, Henrietta Lacks. Dr. Gey did not want to reveal Henrietta’s name because confidentiality and created a false accusation that he got the cells after Henrietta died, not before.
When Rebecca goes back to Clover, Virginia to interview some of Henrietta’s extended family, Rebecca finds out that there has been a lot of confusion toward the HeLa cells and how they keep on dividing as well as be immortal. By the late 1990s, Henrietta’s story was becoming increasingly famous and popular throughout the world. BBC news made a documentary about Henrietta. Dr. Raymond Pattillo organized the first annual HeLa Cancer Control Symposium, while Courtney Speed and Barbara Wyche tried to find a museum in Turners Station honoring Henrietta. Unfortunately, this was not allowed because both women did not receive any consent from the Lacks family.
By September of 1951, Henrietta was having crucial amounts of pain, which basically overtook her whole body. Less than a year after her diagnosis, Henrietta died at the age of 31 of October in the same year. She was buried on her family’s land in a grave but her family still did not know that the cells that came from her are still growing. The author tried to create a memorial for Henrietta at the end, but tragically every one of Henrietta’s children died such as Deborah. Deborah died when she had a heart attack as she first gained hives. Deborah went to consult with a doctor who said that she must reduce her stress levels, an unfortunate time because Rebecca wanted to show Deborah the final draft of this book. Henrietta’s cells started from the hospital and eventually went throughout the world. In the book, Rebecca Skloot explains that she was only sixteen years old when she became interested in HeLa cells in her biology class in which she decided to do a research project as well as the fact that her father was ill. This project consisted of interviews and personal insights about Henrietta’s life and how her cells are a legacy of who she was. The past sixty years Lacks’ cells have been cultured and used in experiments. Her cells were commercialized and have generated millions of dollars in profit for the medical researchers who patented her tissue. Most of Henrietta’s children can not afford health insurance to pay for the drugs their mother’s cells helped develop. Unfortunately, her family did not know of this until about twenty years after her death when Rebecca Skloot, took much time to show Henrietta’s daughter and one of her sons around a lab and discuss the issue with them about her mother’s HeLa cells. This was in the year of 2000.

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