Henrietta Lacks and Her Legacy

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Henrietta Lacks didn’t have the easiest life. She grew up during the Jim Crow era which made a lot of issues for a young black women. As she was growing up, her cousin Day and her cousin Joe started fighting over which one would be with her. Henrietta didn’t like Joe and found out she was pregnant with Day’s child at fourteen. She would give birth to Lawrence and then four years later have another daughter Elsie. Elsie was affected by Henrietta’s syphilis and has epilepsy. After her fourth pregnancy, the young black woman would soon find herself at John Hopkins to have a “knot on her womb” examined. John Hopkins was a charity hospital that would provide health care for black patients. She had been in pain while she was pregnant, and when she did a self examination in the bathtub, she found a lump on her cervix. The mass on her cervix was unlike anything Howard Jones, her doctor at John Hopkins, had ever seen before. He took a biopsy and sent her home for the time being.

Henrietta’s results came back fairly quick, she had stage I cervical cancer. During this time, doctors did not have a great understanding and thought it was non-invasive. A doctor at John Hopkins, Robert TeLinde, was working on a study to prove just how serious cervical cancer could become if not treated. TeLinde wanted tissue samples that could grow outside the cervix and view them under a microscope to help his study. He began working with a doctor George Gey to help him examine the tissues. Woman who were diagnosed at the hospital would participate due to the fact they were getting free medical care. When Henrietta found out she had cancer, she didn’t tell her family she just had Day take her back for treatment. This treatment was pretty insane by today’s standards; the doctor placed radium inside her cervix and sewed it up. During the procedure he took samples of the tumor and sent it off to Gey’s lab. Henrietta’s cells were labeled “HeLA” according to the labs naming protocol; first two letters of subjects first and last names. In the lab, the HeLa cells began to grow uncontrollably.

After her radium treatments, Henrietta went back to her usual life. She didn’t seem to be sick from the radiation. She was just like any other woman who loved to have fun, she was generous, hard-working, and very meticulous especially about her physical appearance. By the time Henrietta had her fifth child, she had to undergo x-ray treatment, forcing her to tell her family about the cancer. She broke the news to her cousins but told them she’d be okay which seemed to be the truth at the time. Henrietta began bleeding badly again and had to undergo more radiation therapy, she also became infertile because of all the treatment. On top of this, she began getting more and more sick.

George Gey appeared on television explaining his advances in his cancer research. Pretty soon, Henrietta’s cells were in labs all over the world, once a lab had them, they could grow more and share them. Researches could conduct various amounts of studies with her cells and see how they’d react, which is something they couldn’t do inside a human being. Meanwhile, Henrietta’s condition worsened. Doctors couldn’t really tell her cancer was spreading, other than the fact she had abdominal pain, she seemed fine. Henrietta complained various times of pain to her doctors but they insisted she was okay. A few weeks later she would be diagnosed with inoperable cancer, and was sent home. She was dying, hardly recognizable, and in an excruciating amount of pain. After she died, Gey wanted to take more of her cells, but he needed Day’s permission. Day let him after finding out it could help his children in the future.

A factory was built to manufacture HeLa cells in bulk to help with a polo vaccine. HeLa cells were being shipped all over the country to polio research labs. This is when they found out these cells were more susceptible for viruses, meaning they could be used for even more research. Finally, people started asking questions about where the HeLa cells came from and the woman who made them. Lots of people found out her name, but the first mention of her in the media said her name was Henrietta Lakes. Nobody would own up to the mistake, mainly because they didn’t want the patient’s name revealed. When George Gey was asked about the full story, he would only talk about the cells. Almost all media said that her cells were only taken after death, which was also never corrected.

A virologist at Sloan-Kettering Cancer research, Chester Southam, started to wonder if HeLa cells could infect the scientists handling them. He decided to test his theories by infecting a sick woman with Henrietta’s cells without her consent. He did this to other patients as well and said he was “trying to test their immune systems” which was technically true if you aren’t worried about ethics. He was right, and in all but four cases he was able to remove the cancer from the patient. When confronted about the ethicality of his procedures, Southam basically said that people were too ignorant to understand the importance of the study and that they would resist when they heard the word ‘cancer.’ He was only one of hundreds with similarly unethical studies.

One thing I found surprising, was a very small thing during the first few chapters that I just can’t seem to get over. John Hopkins was a charity hospital that gave free healthcare to numerous amounts of African Americans. This is one of the top prestigious hospitals in the nation. I knew they were a non-profit but I didn’t realize how they started off. Also, besides the unethical issues, researches from this hospital have made advancements that have made groundbreaking medical history. Without John Hopkins or its researchers, we wouldn’t know nearly as much as we do about multiple diseases and cancers.

After reading these chapters I definitely do see the world a little differently. Before I had this high image of doctors especially those at John Hopkins. I always figured if a doctor was working at a charity or non-profit, it was for the right reasons, say they wanted to make a difference, or believed in equal healthcare for all. It wasn’t until I read these chapters that I realized there was so much more to it. Personally I found this book extremely interesting and am excited to continue reading. It is both educating and captivating. I would highly recommend it to anyone going into the medical field.

Cite this paper

Henrietta Lacks and Her Legacy. (2021, Oct 03). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/henrietta-lacks-and-her-legacy/

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