THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENREITTA LACKS –REBECCA SKLOOT

– P.Jyothi 

We live in a world where people are biased in their views about humanity. We have class caste gender and color differences. In India we have been living under the influence of all these biased views from generations. Sometimes it becomes quite difficult to keep these views aside and lead life with a feeling of oneness and unity. The educated and the rational beings spend most of their lives trying to separate themselves from the biased views which actually get into them consciously or unconsciously. In the west color of the skin plays a major role. Even in India the fair skinned are extremely privileged when it comes to earning public respect and interest. When we read how this color distinction made demons out of humans and how people especially a whole community was dominated, bullied, looted and were cheated from all the opportunities needed for humanity to grow and cherish,  I sometimes feel sad about the hypocritical attitude of the developed and civilized communities. Its just a color which played an important role in preventing a whole race to lead normal lives, kept them away from basic necessities. Generations of these discriminations has stunted their development but still this race survived, fought back and produced the best human beings, leaders and philosophies out of their circumstances. When each time I got an opportunity to understand the black struggle, my total view on civilization changed. If we openly accept, that as a race humanity would not have moved on without the contribution of the larger community called the blacks, we should actually feel guilty for not trying to acknowledge the black contribution in our comfortable lives.  This is what this entire book is about which speaks about  the life of a black woman and the society ignoring her immense contribution to the world of science which helped the whole world towards a healthy and a comfortable existence. 

 

THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS is written by Rebecca Skloot and was first published in the year 2010. Not much is known about Henrietta to the world and Skloot’s attempt to research and publish the life of Henrietta lacks is a wonderful gesture made by a human and is the best tribute actually given to Henrietta and to her family who were kept in dark about the cell experiments going around the world using Henrietta’s cells.

In 1951 thirty year old Henrietta is diagnosed with cervical cancer. She is a mother of five children and the youngest Joe is just a two month old baby. Henrietta lived for just a few months after she was diagnosed with cancer. She goes to the John Hopkins hospital for her treatment which is the only hospital where the blacks are treated. George Gey is the head of tissue culture research at Hopkins. Telende is a fellow researcher who is working on pap smear and biopsies studying the cell growth in cancer patients and he is in search of cancerous cells for his research. Gey also is into cell breeding experiments and therefore he quietly collects samples of Henrietta’s normal and cancerous cells for their research before he starts his treatment on Henrietta. Then Henrietta goes for her radiation therapies which do not help her. Cancer spreads in her body very fast and she succumbs to death. 

Henrietta is born in a very poor black family. She is the ninth child of her mother who later dies delivering her tenth child. When she was just four years old all her siblings were distributed among the family. She goes to live with her grandfather where another cousin has left her son “Day”. Both Henrietta and Day grow together. She delivers her first son Lawrence  with Day when she was just fourteen years old. Her second child is a daughter who is mentally challenged. All her children later are known to have partial deafness. She marries Day after the birth of their second child. Everything goes on well with her family trying to earn a livelihood through tobacco farming until cancer took her life away.

In Gey’s lab Henreitta’s cancer cells are given to his assistant Mary Kubicek who finds out that they grow with mythological intensity. While her normal cells died in a few days, her cancer cells kept on growing and several scientists started doing research using them in their experiments. Gey started giving out these samples to anyone who actually wanted them for their research. He never made money out of it. He proved to be a true researcher till the end. When he himself was diagnosed with prostate cancer he willingly came forward to cooperate to the scientists and labs giving his cell samples for their research. He just never thought that Henreitta’s family needed to know about her cells. One logical reason for this callousness was because at that time several experiments were going on black patients, prisoners and vulnerable black poor men in the field of medical research around the country. The society was not in a state of mind where a black man’s life was valued so anything which happened over them was of least importance and everyone knew about black men being used for medical research. Some things were just taken for granted. When Henrietta dies Day is asked to sign a consent form willing for an autopsy. He is told that this procedure may help his children in their future. So Day gives his consent and Henrietta’s body is cut open where the spread of cancer is obvious and samples were collected from all the parts of her body. These cells died later but it was the original cells which were collected from her body two months before her death which were labeled as HELA (from her name) and went on breeding which now cover almost the whole of earth.

Extensive research was done with the help of these cells. They helped in checking the authenticity of Polio vaccine, in Chemotherapy, cloning, gene mapping, Vitro fertilization, herpes, leukemia, Influenza. Hemophilia, Parkinson’s disease, lactose digestion sexually transmitted diseases, appendicitis, human longevity, Mosquito mating, AIDS, Hepatitis B and many more areas. These cells were used in a nuclear bomb to know how it affects human anatomy. They were first sent into the space, and contributed a lot in the field of research. But all through this process the family was unaware that a part of Henrietta was still alive in a lab and is multiplying.

Henrietta’s children lived in poverty and faced all the challenges society exposed to black people. Deborah the second daughter of Henrietta has contributed a lot to the writing of this book by helping the writer with the information and the things she collected about her mother. Only in the 70s twenty years after the experiments began did the family come to know through the magazines about their mother’s contribution to the world, when the various articles on HELA cells and the information of the donor was first published. They lived in poverty unable to bear their own personal medical expenditure while their mother’s cells were sold by laboratories around the world. And to add to their agony, because a reporter gave their mothers name wrong most of the times HELA cells were known to be the cells from a black women named as Helen Lane or Helen Larson in many of the articles published in newspapers and journals. They felt cheated because no one bothered to correct the name to Henrietta. The medical doctors  had to approach the family for their blood samples for their further research which needed the DNA of Henrietta’s clan. The reason for this for due to the wide usage of Hela cells in the laboratories serious contamination was going on all through the world where there was serious study and research included. This was delaying the work and also resulted in causing a lot of monetary damage. The scientists had to differentiate the Hela cells from the others and for this they needed DNA samples and had to approach the family. It was then, the family actually was made aware of their mothers contribution. But even then the actual reason behind the collection of the family s blood samples was not properly informed to the family. No one bothered to explain the reason behind this collection of samples. All the children gave their blood thinking that it has to do something with the cancer tests and Deborah also lived in fear and endured panic attacks thinking that she must have been having cancer like her mother all through. 

 

When Henrietta’s name become public many reporters started approaching them and this made the situation very uncomfortable. They could not understand how everything was taken for granted. People approached them for information, for blood samples, and for various reasons concerned with their personal research. They were always looked up as subjects with information but not as human beings and as people who have sentiments, emotions and problems of their own. Because it is their mother who was widely talked about and they had no clue what everybody were speaking of.  Whenever a white person approached them it was only for the information about Henrietta. With no proper information given about what is actually going on with her cells, they were confused with the interpretation of the press and therefore they angrily shoved everyone aside. And on the other hand they found it hard to accept that their mother’s contribution to the whole world is not going to help them in their lives and the social conditions they are fighting with.

 

Rebecca initially finds it difficult to approach Deborah and win her confidence. She finds out how this confused information about her mother has affected Deborah psychologically. She finally gains her confidence though in between she did have a few difficult episodes with Deborah which are because of the law suit she had to face from a fake lawyer who wanted to make some money over the family’s’ situation. By the time this book was published Deborah died of a heart attack and a few others from the immediate family also passed away. None of them were actually benefitted by HELA experimentation and they had to struggle with the psychological affects which this late or no information had caused to the family.

 

Along with Hela research the writer also tries to speak about a few other people whose cells contributed to the medical research. But the contribution of HELA cells was outstanding. Later the court did give a few decisions on research and medical ethics but still thousands of samples from patients are being collected all through the world and are being tested in laboratories world wide. In a white dominated society where the white man proudly speaks about his race and condemns his black brother when equal rights are mentioned,  it is a fact that a black woman’s cells have given life to the white community and helped them with the modern medical inventions to better their lives . But  the white dominated society has failed to acknowledge these facts for years. Every person living on this globe today is in one way or other indebted to Henrietta and her Hela cells. But it’s a tragedy that on the other hand Henreitta’s family struggled all through their lives. Sonny became a drug dealer and got arrested many times. Joe converted into a Muslim, had his own anger issues and was most of the time in Jail. Deborah had a son in Jail at the time of her death. Day lived with multiple health issues had his leg was amputated due to diabetes and it was difficult to buy medicines on a regular basis. Once Rebecca takes Deborah and Joe to a laboratory to witness their mother’s cells and it was the only time when they actually came to anything like truth in regard to their mother.

In such circumstances Rebecca brought out this book to offer a perfect homage to the simple black woman Henrietta who has largely helped the human race. This book also offers homage and gives the rightful acknowledgement to the family who was neglected by the world and deprived of their rights. Going through this sincere attempt of Rebecca which is displayed in every page of this book, I felt that it’s not just an ordinary attempt to record a scientific experiment but it is a indeed a great deed done by a woman single handedly to correct the wrong which the white society and the medical world had chosen to do to countless Black families like Henrietta’s.  Reading this book changes our perspective towards discrimination and the cruelty behind it. It changes out callous attitude towards people who suffered for being born in unprivileged circumstances. It helps us grow as humans and also to shed our hypocrisies when regarding human rights and responsibilities.  

*****

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