In 1952, more than 3,000 people in the United States died due to the polio virus (Beaubien). Because of the polio vaccine, it has not originated in the U.S. since 1979 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). We have one person to thank for this: an African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta’s immortal cells – which were stolen by scientists – have also helped us to understand cancer, HIV/AIDS virus, and to test many anti-tumor medicines. Those cells have generated millions of dollars, not any of which went to her family, and have saved thousands of lives. Henrietta Lacks has not only revolutionized science with her cells, the trials that she had in life also teach immortal lessons of persistence, injustice, bravery, and how an indomitable spirit can have a profound impact.
Henrietta Lacks’s childhood had plenty of hardships and difficulties. Henrietta was born Loretta Pleasant in Roanoke, Virginia in 1920. Nobody knows how she came to be called Henrietta. When Henrietta’s mother died in 1924, her father sent her to live with her grandfather, Tommy Lacks. Growing up in Virginia in the 1920s as an African-American woman was extremely difficult, to say the least. Even though Henrietta only attended school until the sixth grade, [s]he’d walk two miles – past the white school where children threw rocks and taunted her – to the colored school, a three-room wooden farmhouse . . . (Skloot 20). Receiving little education, even as a child she was underestimated and underappreciated because of circumstances beyond her control. As if that wasn’t enough, Henrietta also had her first child at age fourteen with her cousin, David Lacks, and married him at twenty. Her childhood was short and adverse, but even still the people who knew her best still remembered her beautiful smile, proving how even though Henrietta had a great many challenges early on in life, she persisted in order to overcome them.Henrietta’s relationship with Johns Hopkins hospital was full of misdirection and injustice.
After David and Henrietta had moved to Maryland and had five children, Henrietta noticed what seemed to be a knot next to her cervix. She went to the Johns Hopkins gynecology clinic to have it looked at, where Dr. Howard Jones examined her cervix to find the lump exactly where she said it would be. After being diagnosed with an Epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix, Stage I (Which turned out to be diagnosed incorrectly after examination several years later), Henrietta underwent surgery to kill her cancerous cells with radium. At this time, a man named George Gey and his wife were conducting experiments at Johns Hopkins to attempt to grow malignant cells outside of the body in the hopes of curing cancer. Dr. Richard Wesley TeLinde at Johns Hopkins was collecting cervical cancer cells from women and offered them to George, which was where Henrietta fit in. In order to kill her cancer cells, the doctors inserted radium (A mineral able to kill cancer cells) into her cervix. Before this, however, – though no one had told Henrietta that TeLinde was collecting samples or asked if she wanted to be a donor – [the doctor] picked up a sharp knife and shaved two dime-sized pieces of tissue from Henrietta’s cervix . . . and after that, gave them to Dr. TeLinde (Skloot 33).
In essence, Johns Hopkins had just stolen her cells. Not only that, but they also neglected to mention to Henrietta that the radium treatments would render her infertile and unable to have any more children. Overall, Henrietta was mistreated and taken advantage of at Johns Hopkins. Even while Henrietta was unable to do so herself, she shows us the importance of standing up for our health and rights with her story.At the end of her life, Henrietta bore unimaginable pain with remarkable patience. Henrietta never complained of pain, and in fact never even told her family that she had cancer for a while. After she went back to the hospital once to confirm that the tumor was indeed shrinking, she never saw the need. However, the doctors at Johns Hopkins realized that her cervical cancer had grown back, and not only that but many other tumors as well. Cervical cancer had basically shut down one of her cancer suppressing genes, causing cancerous cells to spread over most of her organs. Henrietta was dying, with her last days filled with enormous pain and suffering.
Despite all of that, when George Gey came to visit Henrietta after discovering that her cells were immortal, [he] told Henrietta her cells would help save the lives of countless people, and she smiled. She told him she was glad her pain would come to some good for someone.’ (Skloot 66). Those last incredible words of Henrietta teach us all how courage can help you bear even the worst of times. The death of Henrietta Lacks affected all of the people around her. On October 4, 1951, she died after a long struggle (Skloot 86). The people performing her autopsy would describe the tumors in her body like pearls. They covered most of her organs, including her lungs, her digestive system, and her heart. Officially, her cause of death was a build-up of all of the toxins in her urine that was released into her bloodstream. Because she couldn’t use the restroom or have a catheter inserted into her bladder, the toxins had no place to go but her blood. When her body was sent back to her relatives, her cousins dressed up her dead body and her family buried her somewhere near her mother’s burial site. It is proof as to how much Henrietta was loved that cousins filed onto porches to watch Henrietta pass, their hands on hips or clutching children as they shook their heads and whispered to the Lord. (Skloot 91). When the people in her community learned that Henrietta had died, it saddened and shocked many of them. Henrietta was so lively and well-liked that her death had a large impact on everyone close to her, proving how one good person really can make a difference.Henrietta’s family was wholly unaware of what her cells have done for a very long time. After she died, her husband remarried and her five children only knew their mother in memories. They certainly had no idea what she had done to change science. Her family would only discover about her cells twenty-two years after her death when a scientist came to take samples from her children in the hopes that they would have the same immortal cells as their mother.
According to one of Henrietta’s children, Sonny Lacks: John[s] Hopkin[s] didn’t give us no information about anything . . . cause they were selling her cells all over the world and shipping them for dollars.’ (Skloot 168). Even when they did know that Henrietta’s cells were important, they didn’t know what exactly they had done. All they knew was that they didn’t like the idea that their mother’s cells were seemingly everywhere. The story of a family struggling to know their mother is not only sad, it once again demonstrates how the life of Henrietta Lacks was not limited to what her cells have done for science.Henrietta’s cells (Called HeLa by scientists) were the first ever immortal cells and helped to make many advances in science. The reason why immortal cells were a breakthrough was that, in order to test various drugs, medicines, and procedures to see how they would impact a human, scientists need human cells. Before Henrietta, all attempts at cultivating immortal cells had failed. Cancer cells survive longer than regular cells because instead of having a limit as to how long they survive, cancer cells will live on forever in the right environment. HeLa just happened to be remarkably resilient and survived where other cancer cells didn’t.
When George Gey’s assistant tested Henrietta’s cancer cells and they survived, scientists all over the world started clamoring for Henrietta’s cells to test their ideas. [Gey] sent shipments of HeLa cells to researchers in Texas, India, New York, Amsterdam, and many places between. (Skloot 57). Because of this, Henrietta’s cells have been in space to test the effects of space on humans, have been exposed to many toxins and nuclear bombs, and helped us to better understand cancer. They have also been instrumental in developing the polio vaccine and studying the HIV/AIDS virus. Henrietta Lacks, whether she knew it or not, has made an enormous impact on the world today with her remarkable cells.Henrietta Lacks was so much more than her immortal cells. She persisted through challenges early in life, teaches us how important it is to stand up for yourself when Johns Hopkins stole her cells and shows a beautiful example of patience and diligence even when in intense pain. Not only this, but the great impact that her death and HeLa cells had on her family, the people around her, and the world is astounding. In any way that you look at it, Henrietta Lacks was an incredible woman who taught many important, everlasting ideals within her short life. Not to mention, there is always a lesson to be learned from a woman who, even on her deathbed, was simply happy to know that she would help.
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