Critique of the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks While reading the book about Henrietta Lacks and her famous HeLa cells, a few issues came to mind. The first is definitely informed consent and the issues surrounding the medical work with the cells. The second issue that I thought about was Henrietta’s struggle as well as her family’s continuing struggle while she was ill and for years after her death. I am also intrigued about the story behind a white woman making the information about HeLa so well known and how recognition of the cells and their importance is conveyed.
The issues regarding informed consent, I believe, is the most important part of this book. If Henrietta and her family had truly been informed and understood what was going to be done, there would be no story to tell. Henrietta was given a consent to sign at the admissions desk when she checked in to Johns Hopkins. It was upon check in that the receptionist had her sign the consent which read, “I hereby give the consent to the staff at Johns Hopkins Hospital to perform any operative procedures and under any anesthetic either local or general that they may deem necessary in the proper surgical care and treatment of:______ (31). Not only did Henrietta sign this consent without knowing what would happen next, a witness that had illegible handwriting signed the consent also. I know that medical science has advanced since Henrietta’s procedure was performed but I feel that she should have at least been informed about what specific procedures were going to take place. The consent she signed didn’t mention anything about removal of tissue, especially healthy tissue. Being a healthcare professional, I find this extremely disturbing. Today’s consents are very specific about what procedures will take place.
The patient is informed about their procedure by a nurse, an anesthesiologist, and a surgeon before being put under anesthesia. This makes me question the integrity of the doctors that worked with Henrietta. She was treated at Johns Hopkins for free and it was the only hospital she could go to since she was black. With all of the evidence that came forth later on about medical trials involving African Americans, I can’t help but wonder if taking her cells for their own use was a form of “payment” for treatment.
It is true that once a sample is removed from the body, it is no longer property of the patient but that is only with informed consent. In that case, the cells could be used for whatever purpose the physician deems necessary. Some may argue that providing an informed consent to Henrietta may have been difficult due to her lack of education. I believe it is the physician’s responsibility regardless of the education level of the patient. Regardless, I do believe that Henrietta would be proud of the way her cells have furthered medical knowledge.
It was stated in the book that while she was in the hospital withering away from her tumors, George Gey visited her telling her how her cells would make her immortal. Her response , “she was glad her pain would come to some good for someone (66). ” With the picture that the author painted of Henrietta, I wouldn’t expect any other answer. The issue of compensation for the use of the HeLa cells is where I am unsure. I don’t believe that the research that was completed using her cells, in the beginning, was done to make a profit for anyone.
I believe that they were used to bring forth information and advance medicine. It was only after they were mass produced that profit was involved. At that point, George Gey even questioned if he should have given the cells to other researchers since making millions was not his intent. I have a tremendous amount of empathy for the family since they are still without healthcare and many are living in poverty but, compensation for tissue opens up a door to bad business. Rather than become rich from selling one’s tissues and body parts, we should focus on public healthcare that is available to all.
I was moved by Henrietta’s story and her struggles during her fight with cancer. Amazingly, I never questioned whether she would have received any other treatment if she were white. I do feel that many of her complaints were brushed off but I have also worked with physicians that practice the same way now. Unfortunately, I believe that Henrietta would have met the same fate regardless of the amount of treatment due to the rate of her tumor growth. She was strong during her life and just as strong after her death because her cells are still growing.
Her families distrust of people, especially white people, is completely justified. They were never able to understand so much of what went on with Henrietta and the HeLa cells. Reading about Henrietta’s life and the stories told about her by her children, cousins and other townspeople, I felt myself smiling. This was probably because they told the stories with so much love for her. Losing someone you love always leaves you with questions. I believe that is why it was so important for the family to get the information they deserved.
Closure can take a very long time without the proper information. Why didn’t Henrietta’s family get the information they deserved? Unfortunately, the interest was in the cells, not Henrietta or her family. Giving information takes time and it is hard to get that information when you are black, poor and have little education. This is especially true for the time period that Henrietta lived in. It’s astounding that the author, being a white woman, is the person who is truly bringing Henrietta, her family, and her contribution to medicine to light for the rest of the world to see.
I am almost glad that the family made the author work so hard to gain their trust. With everything that they were put through following Henrietta’s death, it almost seems fitting that someone else felt the struggle they endured. Now the question of why didn’t Henrietta get recognition for her contribution to science. Why was it just HeLa and not the person the cells came from? It could be argued that it is because she was a black woman. The mention of women contributing in science, especially black women, is rare. I can attest to this from the many medical books that I have had to read.
It is more likely that the male doctor or scientist gets the recognition. This is unfortunate and I believe that the only way to change this is through books like this one. Giving recognition to all races and genders for their contributions and including them in textbooks will bring equality in recognition. Another argument about this is that Henrietta’s cells were chosen because of the properties they held. They were chosen because they lived and multiplied at a tremendous rate which had never been accomplished before.
Henrietta’s cells were not chosen because she was a woman nor because she was black. Regardless, I believe it is important to tell the source of such an amazing contribution to science. It was quite easy for the news to show the first cloned sheep on their broadcast but there was never a mention of how it was made possible. Would telling where the cells came from make the accomplishment less valid? I would surely hope not but, once again, it would likely tell of the cells and not the person.
Many people who work in medicine like to work with facts, evidence and pure science. Part of working in medicine and with patients is becoming desensitized to many situations. It is used mainly as a coping mechanism due to the graphic nature of the job and the many deaths witnessed. This is why I am not surprised that most of the people who worked with the HeLa cells never asked where they came from. Reading this book really made me think about some of the practices that I have performed over the years.
There have been countless times that I handed off tissue samples in the operating room or wrapped a body to go to for an autopsy. I have a feeling that the nurses and assistants that worked with Henrietta’s tissue felt the same way, standard procedure. I will definitely think about what will happen next time I hand off a sample. The only thing that I can think about is the old cliche that “Knowledge is Power. ” I truly feel that Henrietta and her family deserved the chance to have that power. References Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Crown Publishers, 2010.