Wednesday, June 5, 2013
Guest Post by Sarah Murphy
Medical Advancement versus Cultural Beliefs
The LIFE of Henrietta Lacks
To be moved, conflicted and evermore curious you only need to start reading Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks [Rebecca Skloot, “Life,” The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, (New York: Crown Publishers, 2010)]. The first part of her book, entitled “Life,” makes you question the development of the modern medical field, and draws you into the story of a woman’s life that has greatly been overlooked in the history of medicine. Henrietta’s cancer cells would be found to never die, unlike most human cells; Henrietta Lacks’ cells would become known as HeLa. Skloot intricately ties together a complicated timeline that involves the medical developments leading up to the “discovery” of the HeLa cells, what is known of Henrietta Lacks’s life up until her death in 1951, the beginning of Skloot’s journey to discover the story of Henrietta and her family and trying to put the reader into the culture of the mid-20th century that included racism, sexism and elitism that is difficult for us to comprehend.
Part One develops as Skloot travels back and forth between her personal journey to discover more about Henrietta Lacks and the series of developments in cell cultures and cancer-fighting technology. She starts with Henrietta’s first exam where she was diagnosed with cancer. Outlining the foreign nature of hospitals to those who grew up outside of the medical culture, like Henrietta, and especially the difficulty of receiving medical care as a poor African American in Baltimore, Maryland. Skloot talks about Henrietta’s life from her childhood up until her diagnosis. To balance the story, Skloot includes a couple of chapters of medical developments and discusses the complex views of the medical field by the public, particularly surrounding cell cultures. The last aspect of Part One revolves around Skloot’s personal journey to get in contact with Henrietta’s family, and her tumultuous start to uncover a family’s history of loss, distrust and manipulation.
While the story unweaving before the reader brings a whole mix of emotions, one of the main aspects of Skloot’s Part One is the conflict between general population, specifically the rural poor, and the development of the medical field. There was a complete disconnect between the developing medical field and public understanding and acceptance of modern medicine. Henrietta was just one of the many that came to a hospital, but not understanding fully her diagnosis or the treatment implications. While it was common practice for doctors to explain that radiation treatments would most likely make her infertile, Henrietta did not understand until it was too late that the treatment would make it so she could not have another child (Skloot, 46-7). A gap in language and understanding was the likely culprit of this tragic misunderstanding, but the fact the Henrietta also did not grasp the seriousness of her condition, and that it was likely a choice between fertility and life, and she said if she had known she would not have gone through the radiation treatments (Skloot, 47).
With such a disconnect in understanding and priorities it is not surprising that many people did not want to have biopsies taken to be used for experimentation, but without this practice medical advancement would likely not have occurred at the rate it has. Even though Henrietta’s husband was asked if doctors could take samples of Henrietta’s cells after her death, his lack of full understanding of the implications did not prevent them from taking those samples, and continue using the samples previously taken without Henrietta’s knowledge. While we would like to say that the doctors were purely in the wrong, without Henrietta’s “immortal cells” many of the medical advances that they lead to would not have happened, or at least would have not had happened as early as they did.
There is an ethical issue that people still struggle with today regarding the line between patient permission and medical advancement. Had Henrietta been more educated and had an explanation about the impacts her cells could have on the world, would she have agreed? Do doctors have the right to disregard cultural beliefs in the name of saving lives? Skloot has only begun to dive into these issues in Part One, but her open-minded pursuit of the truth allows for a controversial issue to be addressed from all sides simultaneously. The level of respect Skloot brings to the varying interpretations and lives involved in the “discovery” of the HeLa cells allows for a productive conversation around a part of history that is often brushed aside and forgotten, but is very much relevant.