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Her Cells Led to Medical Miracles, But Why Couldn’t They Save Henrietta Lacks?



by TRN Staff Writer,

How would you feel if some small part of you were used to unlock mysteries in the universe… save countless lives and no one bothered to acknowledge your contribution or even take the time to even say thank you?  That in a nutshell, is the story of the life and death of a Black woman named Henrietta Lacks.

Until 2010, her name was not known to the public. Author Rebecca Skloot changed all that with her best selling book chronicling how the Baltimore woman’s death from cervical cancer in 1951 gave future researchers the key to unlocking some of the mysteries behind the disease.

Her cells were harvested without her knowledge or that of her family and became known as the HeLa cell line—a crucial cell line in medical research.  The HeLa is referred to as an immortal  line because under specific conditions, the cells can reproduce.  Now, even sixty plus years after her death, Lacks’ cells are still vital in medical research.  For the majority of those years, no one in Henrietta’s family had any idea of the contribution their descendant was making.  While she was undergoing treatment while at Johns Hopkins hospital, samples were taken from her cervix without her consent or knowledge.  There samples were passed on in the research world.

It’s easy to say ‘well, she was dying anyway, so why not harvest cells to help others?’  Thinking like that is the reason Black males were treated like lab rats in the now infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment.  It’s the reason older Black people don’t trust doctors and hospitals because in slave days Blacks were considered only three-fifths of a person and could be thrown into burning pits as White doctors searched for cures to sunstroke or were tortured with boiling water as they searched for a way to cure typhoid. (New African Magazine).  Blacks were sacrificed so others could enjoy health and a long life.

Tragically, Henrietta died at the young age of 31. Though their ancestor was the key to solving so many medical mysteries, some news reports say Henrietta’s  Though the medical world didn’t know nearly as much about cancer at the time, you have to wonder if her death meant more to some doctors than her life.  A Frankenstein scenario comes to mind. The cells harvested from Henrietta have aided the medical world in finding medical breakthroughs to  Parkinson’s disease, AIDS and more.   Still, the true tragedy is that nothing doctors learned could save Henrietta.

The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks
Deborah Lacks (Oprah Winfrey) mourns for the mother she never knew
Spring 2017

The story of Henrietta Lacks life and death can be seen this month on HBO with Oprah Winfrey starring in and producing the made for TV movie “The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks.”

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