Henrietta Lacks was an ordinary woman and by that I mean, she grew up motherless on a tobacco farm in Virginia, made it through to the 6th grade befor Henrietta Lacks was an ordinary woman and by that I mean, she grew up motherless on a tobacco farm in Virginia, made it through to the 6th grade before quitting to help man the fields, then married her first cousin, birthed 5 children, the first at 14, and moved to a town that no longer even EXISTS (how does that happen?).
Her cousin/husband liked to drink and bring home ‘itching’ diseases that Henrietta had to go and get penicillin shots or be treated with ‘heavy metals’ to remove the ‘bad blood’. She had to commit her oldest daughter to the Hospital for the Negro Insane and at the age of 31 died of ‘uremic poisoning’ “The official cause of Henrietta’s death was terminal uremia: blood poisoning from the buildup of toxins normally flushed out of the body in urine. The tumors had completely blocked her urethra, leaving her doctors unable to pass a catheter into her bladder to empty it. Tumors the size of baseballs had nearly replaced her kidneys, bladder, ovaries, and uterus. And her other organs were so covered in small white tumors it looked as if someone had filled her with pearls.”
You know… ordinary. Her story was one of millions of stories that still continue today, overworked, under appreciated, dedicated beings who got the wrong lot in life. We don’t really hear about these stories unless we seek them out. And it was no different for Henrietta, except that her cells, the HeLa cells, became famous for helping cure polio, or test the effects of radiation during cancer research, or AIDS, or gene mapping.
Henrietta is buried in an unmarked grave alongside the tobacco farm that she worked on in Clover Virginia.
What I found most interesting about this account of Henrietta and her family’s life is how arcane some of the treatments were, granted this is 1951, but:
“The morning of Henrietta’s first treatment, a taxi driver picked up a doctor’s bag filled with thin glass tubes of radium from the clinic across town. The tubes were tucked into individual slots inside small canvas pouches (plaques) hand-sewn by a local Baltimore woman. .. With Henrietta unconscious on the operating table in the center of the room, her feet in stirrups, the surgeon on duty, Dr. Lawrence Wharton Jr., sat on a stool between her legs. He peered inside Henrietta, dilated her cervix and prepared to treat her tumor. But first—though no one had told Henrietta that TeLinde was collecting samples or asked if she wanted to be a donor---Wharton picked up a sharp knife and shaved two dime0sized pieces of tissue from Henrietta’s cervix: one from her tumor and one from the healthy cervical tissue nearby. The he placed the samples in a glass dish. Wharton slipped a tube filled with radium inside Henrietta’s cervix, and sewed it in place. He sewed a plaque filled with radium to the outer surface of her cervix and packed another plaque against it. He slid several rolls of gauze inside her vagina to help keep the radium in place, then threaded a catheter into her bladder so she could urinate without disturbing the treatment. “
Holy hell. I won’t complain at my next pap smear.
Then learning of some of the experiments done on patients without their consent/knowledge. “The Tuskegee syphilis experiment being one of them “was an infamous clinical study conducted between 1932 and 1972 by the U.S. Public Health Service to study the natural progression of untreated syphilis in rural African-American men in Alabama. They were told that they were receiving free health care from the U.S. government. The Public Health Service started working on this study in 1932 during the Great Depression, in collaboration with the Tuskegee Institute, a historically black college in Alabama. Investigators enrolled in the study a total of 600 impoverished sharecroppers from Macon County, Alabama. Of these men, 399 had previously contracted syphilis before the study began, and 201 did not have the disease. The men were given free medical care, meals, and free burial insurance for participating in the study. None of the men infected was ever told he had the disease, nor was any treated for it with penicillin after this antibiotic became proven for treatment. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the men were told they were being treated for "bad blood", a local term for various illnesses that include syphilis, anemia, and fatigue.”
I don’t even want to get into Nuremberg or studies done on patients in asylums… my god. Give me those rose colored glasses, pronto. Yes, it is wrong of me to want to be oblivious, I, unfortunately, am AWARE of that. But this book throws a lot at you: Poverty, consent, experiments, trials, clinical reasoning, greed, exploitation, mass media hysteria, mad scientists, inequality, and how downright unfair life can be.
I am glad that Rebecca Skloot wrote this book and I am glad that she got to know the Lacks’ family, treating them like real people, not petri dishes.
The consent issue is one that I can’t reason with. I’m torn. I get it and I don’t. But, what I didn’t like was the cockiness of some of the doctors, granted this might be taken out of context, well… if it can be:
“The dean of Stanford University School of Medicine told a reporter that as long as researchers disclosed their financial interests, patients shouldn’t object to the use of their tissues. “If you did, “ he said, “I guess you could sit there with your ruptured appendix and negotiate.”
I know it is meant to be horrifying, another media hysteria thing, but Christ.
I really don’t know where I stand with this book, but it left me a bit shocked and a lot discouraged. ...more
“Phillip Dick’s effects fascinate me even more than the social discontent pulsing through the neon tube in front of the wrinkled mirror suspended by t “Phillip Dick’s effects fascinate me even more than the social discontent pulsing through the neon tube in front of the wrinkled mirror suspended by the piano wire from the windmill of his mind."
Wow. That is a great sentence. I would like someone someday to describe me this way. I would like Roger Zelazny to write an introduction for me, even if I’ve never heard of him.
This left me really excited to read Do androids dream of electric sheep? Other props: The title. How cool is that? Blade Runner. Yummy Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer hair that I would have promised my first child for back in the day. (Sorry, Em)
So. What can I say? Meh. Okay, Meh +. I liked it. It was ok. They probably shouldn’t have talked him up like that in the introduction. Maybe hype played a role here; maybe I’m just not smart enough to appreciate PKD. Whatever the reason, I can now state that I have read this and move on. ...more