Our unsung Hero for today is Henrietta Lacks, who, though she died in 1951, as we heard in the reading, her cells, called immortal, because they continue to multiply almost 70 years later have been used in almost every aspect of medicine. Many of us know about her because of the book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, published in 2000 and made into a movie starring Oprah Winfrey. But for half a century, no one knew about her, and that was on purpose, because her cells were taken from her without her consent or even her knowledge. She died never knowing about them, and her family only learned bits and pieces of information until Rebecca Skloot, the author of the book, told them.
Henrietta was born in Virginia in 1920, one of 9 children. When her mother died, the children were farmed out to relatives. She went to live with her grandfather, who was already raising her cousin Day, who was 5 years older than she was. They shared a room and grew up together, and when she was 20 and he was 25, they got married and moved to Baltimore.
A few weeks after she had her 5th child, she started having pains and felt around until she found a lump. Her local doctor sent her to the gynecology clinic at Johns Hopkins, which was built as a charity hospital for the poor, and was one of the few hospitals at the time who would even treat black people, but even they kept them segregated in public wards.
At Hopkins and other charity hospitals, doctors and scientists routinely used patients for research without their consent or knowledge, figuring that since they couldn’t pay for their treatment with money, it was fair to use their bodies as a source of payment.That’s what Richard Telind and George Gey did to Henrietta. After they diagnosed her with cervical cancer, they treated her with radium. But when he had her on the table under anesthesia, before he inserted the radium, Dr. Telind cut a slice of her tumor and a slice of her healthy cervix, and sent them to Dr. Gey, who had been trying without success to get human cells to reproduce outside the body. With each visit for her treatments, they took more cells, and Henrietta was never informed. Soon tumors spread all over her body, and she died on October 4, 1951. Even back then, the law did require family consent to perform an autopsy. When they asked her husband for permission, he said no. So they lied and said they needed it to run tests that might help his children someday. He agreed, and they took pieces of all the tumors.
Henrietta’s cells, unlike any other cells anyone had tried to grow, produced an entire generation every 24 hours. They kept growing until there were millions and then billions of them. And they are still growing. The cells were called HeLa, and the doctors and scientists who used and sold them kept secret that HeLa stood for Henrietta Lacks because they had stolen them from her. Dr. Gey believed that HeLa could cure cancer, and he started sending HeLa cells to anyone who was doing cancer research. When tests showed that the cells could be used to make a polio vaccine, he set up distribution centers to supply labs around the world. When an article about HeLa ran in 1953, it mistakenly said that the cells came from someone known as Helen Lane, Dr. Gey purposely didn’t correct the error. It also said that the cells were all taken after her death. He didn’t correct that either.
Henrietta’s family began to hear rumors about their mother’s cells in 1975, but nothing from the medical establishment, and as we heard in the reading, they were never compensated. Her husband Day said, “Them doctors never said nuthin about keepin her alive in tubes or growin no cells. They said if I give her to them, they could help my children and grandchildren.”
HeLa cells have been at the forefront of every medical breakthrough in the 67 years after they were taken, and they gave birth to the biomedical industry. They have been used in research for leukemia, hemophilia, polio, In vitro fertilization, chemotherapy, HIV and AIDs and HPV. They have helped researchers find out more about genetic disorders like Down syndrome and to grow corneas for the blind and more.
The story of Henrietta’s stolen cells shows how ethics in medicine are so easily ignored by white doctors who believe that black bodies are theirs to do what they want with.This was also evident in the Tuskegee syphilis study, in which hundreds of African American men were observed as they slowly and painfully died of syphilis, when penicillin could have cured them, so that white scientists, who called black people “a notoriously syphilis soaked race,” could study the disease’s progression. And in “Mississippi appendectomies,” which were actually hysterectomies performed on poor, African American women to sterilize them to slow the growth of the black population and to give white medical students practice.
These weren’t just a few rogue doctors doing these deplorable things. There is a history in our country of white doctors treating black patients differently than they treat white patients. It is racism, and it is systemic, not just in medicine, but in education, housing, employment, political representation, rates of incarceration, and so much more. And it depends on secrecy and deceit to continue. The Tuskegee study was supposed to last 6 months, but it went on for 40 years because they continued to get away with it by keeping what they were actually doing secret. It was finally exposed to the light in 1974. A class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of the subjects and their families, and they were finally compensated. Henrietta Lacks’ cells were stolen from her, and that abomination has been kept secret. But it too has now been exposed. Maybe someday her descendants will finally see justice.
John 3: 20 says, “All who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” At our Lights for Liberty vigil, we promised to keep shining a light on the evil of children in cages. We need to apply that promise to all evil in our society that thrives in secret. We need to expose it to the light of truth, so that everyone can see it for what it is, and then, we need to do whatever we can to help change the system that propagates it.
Our first reading is from the book White Fragility: Why it is so hard for white people to talk about Racism, by Robin Diangelo
When white people ask me what to do about racism and white fragility, the first thing I ask is, “What has enabled you to be a full, educated, professional adult and not know what to do about racism. Information is all around us. People of color have been telling us for years.
If I haven’t been educated, I will have to get educated. If I don’t know people of color, I will have to build relationships. If there are no people of color in my environment, I will need to get out of my comfort zone and change my environment. Addressing racism is not without effort. White people need to find out for themselves what they can do. Break with the apathy of whiteness, and demonstrate that you care enough to put in the effort.
Our second is from the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. It is a quote from her daughter, Deborah.
When people ask, and it seems like people are always asking—I say, “Yeah, that’s right, my mother’s name was Henrietta Lacks. She died in 1951. Johns Hopkins took her cells and those cells are still living today, still multiplying. Science calls her HeLa and she’s all over the world in medical facilities.”
When I go to the doctor, I always say my mother was HeLa. They get all excited and tell me stuff like how her cells helped make my blood pressure medicine. Your mother was on the moon, and she made that polio vaccine, and all this important stuff in science happened because of her. But I’ve always thought it strange, if our mother’s cells done so much for medicine, how come her family can’t afford to see a doctor. People got rich off my mother without us even knowing about them taking her cells. Now, we don’t get a dime.
Our third reading is Proverbs 24: 11-12
If you faint in the day of adversity, your strength being small, if you hold back from rescuing those taken away to death, those who go staggering to the slaughter. If you say, “Look, we did not know this,” does not the one who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not the one who keeps watch over your soul know it? And will you not be repaid according to your deeds?