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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta feels unwell due to the pain that she claims to be from a knob in her womb. She discovered this knob one time when she had some spotting on her underwear yet it was not that time of the month. She decides to slide her finger inside herself and she rubbed it across her cervix to realize a hard lump only. She talked to her husband David and decided to go to the hospital for a checkup from her doctor, which tested negative for syphilis. She is advised to go to the Johns Hopkins gynecology clinic.

Johns Hopkins Hospital is one of the best hospitals in the country. They drove miles to the hospital since it was the only hospital that treated black patients. Henrietta walked straight to the waiting room without visiting the Jesus statue to lay flowers and say a prayer, rubbing his big toe for what they purportedly believed to be good luck, unlike her family norm.

She was called from the waiting room by the nurse to the exam room. She undressed and lay down on the wooden exam table wearing the starched white hospital gown. She told Howard Jones, the gynecologist on duty about the lump. She told Jones she knew about the lump because she felt it there. A sample of the lump was taken and sent to the pathologist: it was described as an eroded, hard mass about the size of a nickel, and it was shiny and purple, and the slightest touch made it bleeding so delicate it was. She was diagnosed with a fully-fledged tumor.

The Clover

August 1, 1920

Henrietta was born, and no one knows how she became Henrietta. She lived in the parents’ house with her “eight older siblings until 1924, when her mother, Eliza Lacks Pleasant, died giving birth to her tenth child.” (Skloot, 2010). Her father, Johnny Pleasant, took them to Clover, Virginia, where they were shared among the relatives, and Henrietta ended up with her grandfather, Tommy Lacks when she was four years old. Henrietta together with her cousin Day, who also stayed with the grandfather after being left by Tommy Lacks’ daughter, woke up every morning at four o’clock to milk cows and feed chickens, hogs, and horses. They spent most of their young lives stooped in the fields planting tobaccos. Henrietta lived there till the sixth grade.

In her school years, she took care of the livestock every morning before walking two miles to the white school where she was taunted by pupils. Her school was a colored three-room farmhouse made of wood and hidden under the shades of trees. When the schools let out or when it was not in session, she spent her time with Day and the cousins in the fields.

Henrietta and her cousins would help Tommy Lacks and her other young cousins unhitch the horses and fill their troughs with grains, then unload the family’s tobacco (Skloot, 2010). They helped Tommy haul any unsold tobacco down to the basement, where he turned the leaves into a bed for the children.

Henrietta and her cousins hired themselves out to those white folks, picking their tobacco for ten cents so they could have money to see their favorite Buck Jones cowboy movies. The boys always fought over grandpa Tommy’s TallBay, which would outrun any other horse in Clover, Henrietta always yelled for Day but sometimes she cheered for another cousin, Crazy Joe, who was so in love with the girl.

Henrietta and Day shared a bedroom since she was four and they started having children together  (Skloot, 2010). Their son Lawrence was born few months after her fourteenth birthday. Their daughter Lucile Elsie Pleasant, who had several medical conditions, was born in four years.

April 10, 1941

Although everyone was against their marriage, Henrietta and Day married in the house of their preacher. She was twenty. Henrietta left the tobacco fields of her youth and boarded a train from Clover to re-unit with her husband in Baltimore headed towards a new life.

Diagnosis and Treatment

February 5, 1951

After Henrietta visited Hopkins, she went back to her usual life, and a few days later, Jones got her biopsy results from the pathology lab – epidermoid carcinoma of the cervix, Stage I. Before she arrived at Hopkins, head of gynecology at the hospital – TeLinde – one of the top cervical cancer experts in the country – had developed a theory about cervical cancer and its treatment that could save the lives of millions of women.

Jones told Henrietta that her biopsy was malignant, and she kept it all to herself as if nothing had happened. The following morning she signed in for an operation procedure. Her tumor was the invasive type, and it was treated with “radium, a white radioactive metal that glows an eerie blue” (Skloot, 2010).

Henrietta was wheeled to the operating room with all the paraphernalia required.  When she laid unconscious on the operating table in the center of the room, the surgeon on duty, Dr. Lawrence Wharton Jr., peered through her cervix and prepared to treat her tumor.  However, initially, he had to take samples of the healthy cervical tissue nearby and one from her tumor for TeLinde though she had not been told about it before. He slipped a tube filled with radium inside her cervix and sewed it in place (Skloot, 2010).

Birth of Hela

Mary sterilized the cubicle, only then she picked up the pieces of Henrietta’s cervix, and carefully sliced them into pieces of one-millimeter in the square, sucked each one into a pipette, and dropped them one at a time onto chicken-blood clots she had placed those at the dozens of test tubes’ bottoms. She labeled each one as she had labeled most cultures they grew: using the first two letters of the patient’s first and last names. She wrote “HeLa” for Henrietta and Lacks using big black letters on every tube’s side. Mary carried them to the incubator room where Gey had built everything else in the lab.

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