Henrietta Lacks Book Report
1. The woman named Henrietta Lacks is well known in the science world under the name HeLa which derives from her actual name (p. 5). The reason for her fame came from the unique multiplying quality of her cervical cancer cells that were taken from her body. These cells were used in scientific experiments without her permission. As time went on, her real name became forgotten and scientists only referred to her cells under the name HeLa (p. 4). Henrietta Lacks was a black, uneducated woman who came to the hospital who had issues with her cervix which would change science forever.
2. Henrietta knew her body well. For a long time after the birth of her child Deborah, she confided in her friends and told them that she had a “knot” inside her (p. 14.) She did not seem to understand how illness worked depending on the sickness. She declined multiple doctors’ suggestions for her health problems. She did not comprehend the definition of the word asymptomatic when it referred to her neurosyphilis diagnosis. Asymptomatic means there are no symptoms that show any signs of disease. If Henrietta knew this, she may have continued her treatments despite feeling fine. (p. 16). She was at least aware of what her body told her. It is possible though, that the untreated syphilis in her body may have contributed to her having a compromised immune system in turn leading to an acceleration of cell growth that caused her cancer.
3. Henrietta was seen at John Hopkins hospital in Maryland. The intention of this hospital was to let patients who could not afford healthcare to be seen for free and to let the people who could afford it, to pay (p. 167). Doctors like Telinde felt that since some patients in the hospital were treated for free, using his logic, he felt that it was a justifiable payment to use them as resources for medical research regardless of their consent (p. 30). I disagree with this reasoning because I believe it is a human right to know what is or is not being done to my body. Just because a doctor may believe that this research can help humans in future generations, I must be allowed to read and interpret how the intentions of that research will impact my health directly. Even though the success of the HeLa cells in scientific research today has impacted the world positively, it was at the cost of human lives. It is this cost that brought up the issues of informed consent laws which we are still currently working on today.
4. The Tuskegee Syphilis Study and the Mississippi Appendectomies were terrible studies conducted on the African-American people for medical research. White men took advantage of their uneducated backgrounds. These people were so poor that they took any opportunity that was appealing and improved their quality of life. They would be crazy not to say yes. Whites themselves were just as uneducated about Blacks which can be based their assumptions of them through stereotypes and discrimination. As years passed, the news of these studies spread and angered the Black community. Black men and women were being killed and deceived through research and treatments. Some treatments were even curable and yet no value was placed on their lives. African Americans sought help from doctors for sicknesses like any normal person would but instead came with a higher price (p. 50).
5. Having an immortal cell line that was achieved with HeLa was important because it was deemed unethical to expose a human being to the types of tests scientists performed for medical purposes. These include exposing people to toxins, bacteria, and all kinds of drugs. It was just too costly to do this to one human and let them suffer. It was inhumane. Instead, cells would leave a small fingerprint on the earth by allowing scientists to perform the tests over and over because “immortal” cells just kept on multiplying and rapidly replaced the cells that died in research (p. 75).
6. What we have learned so far in Henrietta’s timeline is that it is not illegal to take samples from a live human being without their permission because apparently, this was a plausible from of “payment” for free healthcare according to Dr. Telinde (p. 30). In contrast, after a patient has died, it is actually illegal to perform any kind of testing on a corpse for research because there were laws in place for situations like this (p. 89). There were laws in place in respect for the dead yet not for the living.
7. The Tuskegee syphilis study used African-Americans as subjects for experiments that cost many human lives at the expense of research. The Tuskegee HeLa production lab was run by African-Americans reproducing cells derived from a black woman. The irony is that the production facility was created to provide more jobs and funding for black scientists and this location was chosen specifically to attract them. What this reveals about race relations in the 1950s is that there were two different groups that appealed to Blacks. One to attract those with higher education to mark their place in society and make a name for themselves, and the other to attract those looking for an opportunity to live a better life by submitting themselves to research. Even though the intentions were well in terms of sending HeLa cells all over the world and bringing more opportunity, many African-Americans were still treated badly because of old views against them. (p. 96).
8.Chester Southam performed experiments on his subjects without their informed consent. He stated he did not want to cause any unnecessary fear unto his patients because of the negative connotation associated with the word cancer. He felt that if he were to tell patients what he was injecting, then they would say no and that would prevent him from doing his research. Southam felt since he wasn’t the primary doctor for many of his test subjects, it was also unwarranted to get their consent. Jewish doctors rejected Southam’s research because they believed it was important to get the consent of patients. They found this to be an important factor in patient care because of the Nuremberg Trails performed on the Jews by the Nazis. The research conducted on the Jews was a crime and the experiments were inhumane. As a reaction to what happened to their people, the doctors at the Jewish Chronic Disease Hospital felt it was a necessity for their patients to know what it is that they are agreeing to let doctors do to them (p. 127-132).
9. The space program used HeLa to find out what zero-gravity would do to cells suspended in space and how it would react to the radiation in the atmosphere. What scientists found out was that cells, not just HeLa, were acting strange in space. Most cells grew normally but HeLa cells grew and divided faster. In addition, normal cells would either die or transform into cancerous ones. This is what was disturbing with researching how cells acted in space (p. 138).
10. The Lacks family discovered Henrietta’s cells were being used in scientific research when Bobbette Lacks, Henrietta’s daughter-in-law, had lunch with her friend Gardenia who casually said she had been using those cells in her lab. (p. 180-181). Deborah was scared that her mother’s cancer cells might have been passed onto her. She was also afraid that her mother suffered from the research and that HeLa was being used to create monsters. This new information about the mother she never knew was stressful and affected her physical health causing stroke and hives (p. 297).
11. Scientists have not been able to definitively explain why HeLa cells grew so powerfully outside of her body. They discovered the information that started her cancer but found no answer to why they were so strong. One theory in the Lacks family that may have explained why this happened to Henrietta is that Gladys, her sister, was angry when Henrietta left home and this was God’s way of punishing her. Sadie, Henrietta’s friend thought that something came alive inside her that lived there, like an alien and was just able to survive in the world after she passed away (p. 212-214)
12. Rebecca Skloot spent a lot of time trying to speak with Deborah and her family for her book research. One evening she sits down and Rebecca sees a manila envelope and reaches for it. Deborah thinks Rebecca is trying to take the records from her and immediately does not know if she can trust her. Deborah’s distrust grew from her experience with all the reporters and journalists she has encountered in her life. She never knew her mother growing up and just wants to hold on to whatever memory she has of her mother. (p. 239).
13. Zakariyya believed that everything that happened with Henrietta and her cells was due to the work of God. The lying and manipulating of people and stealing from them was wrong and manmade. God does not do any wrong (p. 245). Gary Lacks who was also a preacher spoke to Rebecca about how Henrietta was chosen for the task of becoming HeLa. He explained that there are two types of bodies, heavenly and earthly bodies. Henrietta the woman, the earthly body, and HeLa, her cells, the heavenly body. In religion, Jesus rose from the dead making him immortal. In a sense, HeLa cells are immortal as they still live on after the earthly body has left. There is no guidance as to what form this immortal life will take. Rebecca reads the bible and acknowledges that there is indeed a physical and spiritual body. She leaves with a clear understanding of how and why the Lacks family puts so much faith in God. If the bible is deemed the literal truth, then it must be true for those that are religious. Sometimes religion answers the questions that science cannot. (p. 296).
14. The lives of Henrietta’s great and great-great-grandchildren has inspired them to achieve higher education because of the influence of the HeLa cells and their contribution to science. (p. 312). Deborah grew up with a fixed mindset for most of her life not pursuing education for a better life but later was inspired to go back to school and learn more about science to understand what has happened with her mother’s cells. Deborah was happy with where she left her children, with them being good in school. Lawrence and Bobbette’s granddaughter Erika was accepted to Penn State and became the first in her family to attend graduate school. The Lacks family has come a long way since they gained the knowledge about Henrietta Lacks and her cells. (p. 308).
15. There was no evidence of the scientist George Gey ever talking to Henrietta when he decided to grow her cells without consent. One witness did say she saw him speak to her about how her cells will help improve the quality of life of many people. Apparently, Henrietta was accepting to the idea that her suffering was not for naught and that it would assist the health of others (p. 66).