Posts Tagged ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’

Writing Imitation Practice and Discussion

September 26, 2011 2 comments

I have been enjoying imitating different pieces of writing in class, and have decided to post another example of this. I thought it could be good practice for all of us to imitate a passage from The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. I will also post a sample imitation, and you’re welcome to write your own! I would suggest writing about science (an artifact, article, fact, random piece of information etc.), our class, the Scientifically Speaking essay or any other topic of your choice!

Passage from The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks:

“The rest of the day was a blur. As we drove to clover, each time we stopped, Deborah leapt from her car, clutching the new photo of her sister and thrusting it into the face of every person we met; a woman on a street corner, the man pumping our gas, a pastor at a small church, our waitresses. Each time, she said, ‘Hi, my name’s Deborah and this is my reporter, you probably heard of us, my mama’s in history with cells and we just found this picture of my sister!’” (277)

My imitation, written about writing our first essay: Scientifically Speaking.

The whole essay was just confusing. As soon as I got an idea, which wasn’t often, I tried to write, using all of the skills I’ve acquired and all of the sources I could think of; memories, books, articles, personal stories. Every time, I thought, “I hope I can put all of this together, while implying a thesis, so that I have written a good first essay in college!”


There’s my example, I hope that you won’t be too harsh in judging my writing skills and just look at this as a fun practice! I think it’s interesting to try on different styles of writing and see what you can do with them. What do you think of imitating other peoples’ writing styles?


Has regulation slowed Scientific Progress.

September 18, 2011 5 comments

As we read and went over in class, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”, I kept thinking about how all of the scientists conducted their research until, various laws and such came about which made their practices illegal. And so I thought about the question: Has increased regulations throughout the years led to a decrease in scientific progress? and was wondering what everyone thought about it. I for one think believe that it has hindered research and progress in many ways. If you think about it, most of the major medical discoveries of our time occurred way before most of our current regulations were introduced. In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, there are references to doctors in injecting patients with cancer and syphilis without warning them. The Tuskegee institute injected healthy black men with Syphilis to study the effects of the disease. Dr. Southam injected patients (without their knowledge) directly with HeLa cells to test if patients could catch cancer from them. The HeLa cells, which the book is about, were taken without her knowledge but have lead to incredible discoveries such as the cure for polio, gene mapping, chemotherapy, and new cancer drugs. Had the current regulations been around in the time when Henrietta was being treated, all of these studies would never of happened but we wouldn’t have half of the medical discoveries that we do today. The case is strong to say that regulation slows progress, but there’s a point when we tradeoff human rights for scientific progress, and without regulation we would all unknowingly be lab rats. But is it worth trading our basic human rights to save thousands of lives?

Science, Time and Confusion!

September 18, 2011 5 comments

After reading both The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and “Perspectives on the nature of science,” I was left feeling unsettled. First in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks we read about the different scientists changing their theories about HeLa multiple times throughout the book. Later, the article “Perspectives on the nature of science” described this phenomenon in more general terms by basically saying that, contrary to popular belief, scientists really don’t know everything. It was surprising for me to realize that the scientific ‘facts’ that we know and trust today could be proven to be false in a matter of days, weeks, months or years. And then those theory revisions could later be proven false. It is a never-ending cycle, which is causes discomfort.

I found the relationship between scientific theories and time to be interesting, especially in regards to technology. In a lot of instances only time will reveal whether or not a scientific theory or idea will be falsified. For example, the theory of cell phones causing cancer. This issue has a personal connection to me because I know someone who recently passed away from brain cancer. This person was used his cell phone often, and his tumor was found close to his ear where he held his cell phone. Since this has happened, I have been skeptical of cell phone use. The theory that it might cause cancer is so new that it is difficult to prove or disprove, similarly to how the fact that cigarettes cause cancer took a long time to be proven by scientists.

This raises the questions: how trustworthy of modern technology should we be? And also, how trustworthy of scientists should we be? The readings and class discussions have awakened me to my naivety in trusting everything I hear from scientists just because they have the label “scientists.” Then I had the thought: if you can’t trust scientists who can you trust? Now I’ve ended up in a cynical spiral of losing faith in all of humanity. I’ve finally concluded that it is important to know yourself enough to filter what you believe and what you do not. I think (and hope) that this skill will improve over time and with life experience. And here we are again at yet another example of time changing things… Great.

I Have a Chip in my Shoulder

September 17, 2011 5 comments

While reading the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks I kept thinking to myself, “What would her treatment and subsequent life be like if she were diagnosed today?” Whenever I would read Rebecca Skloot’s explanation of a medical or otherwise pathogen-related discovery, I would always come back to modern times and ask myself what being done today that could have aided doctors and researchers in their attempts to detect, diagnose, and treat these same diseases earlier. After doing this throughout the entire book, I found one point of intersection that never seemed to fail, technology.

Modern day technologies such a Computed Tomography scan (CT scan) and a Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine (MRI) have been used y doctors and scientists for years in the fight against malignant and/or cancerous tumors—such as the one Henrietta Lacks and George Guy developed. However, it appears that scientists in Germany are currently in the animal-testing stages of their new implantation chip that is supposed to read, and transmit oxygen levels in the blood of a localized area to a receiver that displays the information on a screen–it is fair to say that this is a better form of detection than simply realizing that “I got a knot on my womb.” (p. 13) (For those who are unaware, oxygen levels drop significantly during the proliferation and growth of tumor cells.) The chip is called “IntelliTuM”, and the team of developers hope that it will be able to monitor the progression of slow-growing or inoperable tumors that cause cancers such as cervical or pancreatic cancer—the cancers that plagued Henrietta and George Guy respectively. This device is to one day replace or be used in collaboration with the CT and MRI scans, without the high risk of radiation poisoning. It is important to remember however that the chip is still in its early stages and does come with the added risk of some toxic poisoning from the material of the chip itself. Although the chip may seem more science fiction than science at the moment, it is certainly more efficient than placing pure radium rods near the tumors themselves and hoping they are resized to a benign level.

The medical field is a constantly evolving one with twists and turns at every step of the way. When cancer research first began, they were not even considering the use of technology as form of detection. But that was then, and we have come a long way since.

I would say that this article leaves a few open-ended points for discussion specifically the point about Henrietta’s treatment had she been diagnosed today? But I would also like to ask if you believe the doctors did everything in their Hippocratic power to diagnose Henrietta’s tumor, considering the fact that it wasn’t until decades later did anyone care to examine the tumor cells more closely to find that they had been misidentified? But this wouldn’t be a question in 2011 if I didn’t wonder if Henrietta would really receive better care today, factoring in her economic and social status?

Greenwood, V. (2011, September 12). Tumor-monitoring implant could give advance warning of growth. In Discover Magazine. Retrieved September 17, 2011, from








Two Sides to Every Argument

September 9, 2011 9 comments

As I was reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the questionable ethics of the doctors’ actions involving Henrietta’s cells repeatedly entered my mind. The family says that neither Henrietta nor they were ever notified about the plans for her cells and that the doctors did not have the right to take them in the first place. The doctors claim that they had informed both Henrietta and the family about their intention to use the cells. As Skloot writes the book, she researches the details of every event in relation to Henrietta’s cells and her family’s reactions to each new piece of information that they learn and these details supplement the arguments of both sides.

First, Henrietta’s family and friends believed the hospital and the doctors took advantage of them in order to keep Henrietta’s cells for their own personal gain. Henrietta’s friend visited her in the hospital a couple of times before she died and despite all of these visits she was never told anything about the cells. Due to doctor-patient confidentiality, it’s understandable that the doctors would not divulge to a friend of Henrietta the specifics of her case, but they are still allowed to tell a patient’s family what is happening if the patient is incapacitated. Still more pertinently, physicians are required to tell the patient herself. Yet, for some reason, the doctors never found it particularly pressing to tell Henrietta or her family, even after Henrietta had passed.

On the other hand, the doctors believed, and still do to this day, that they were following the protocol of the time and that they did what they deemed was best for medical and biological science. They had Henrietta sign a waiver saying that she gave the staff at John Hopkins consent to perform any surgical and operative procedures that they considered necessary. The doctors found it imperative to acquire some of the cells for further analysis, more than partially because they had an agreement with Gey to continuously supply him with cancerous cells. Also, I would guess that the doctors did not want to tell Day about the cells because he refused to permit them to perform an autopsy on Henrietta’s body upon their request. That refusal would have led them to believe that he would disallow the doctors to work with the cells in the future and then to fear the loss of potential progress that this would cause for science.

So, were the doctors in the wrong? Could it be said that they purposely took advantage of the Lacks family because they were not knowledgeable on the subject and were minorities in the community? Or were they really doing what they believed necessary to improve science and help save millions of lives?

That’s where I ask you to comment:
What do you think? Also, if you were in the doctors’ positions, what would you
have done?

Recognizing Patient from Person

September 8, 2011 7 comments

During today’s class discussion, a logical question was posed regarding why George Gey simply did not ask Henrietta permission for use of her tissue sample. After all, Henrietta was a human being, and thus deserved to be treated with some form of simple human courtesy. In fact, throughout the entirety of the novel, Skloot presents a number of healthcare professionals and other scientists as more or less inconsiderate of or unconcerned with the human source of the HeLa phenomenon. Taking into consideration the extensive evolution of patient confidentiality and medical ethics over the course of the last half-century, it seems simple enough to assume that a modern day Henrietta Lacks would be treated with greater courtesy and amicability by her doctors. However, having worked in and around hospitals for the greater part of four years, I can testify to the detachment that still pervades much of the medical industry.

First and foremost, the public conception of the doctor’s role in the hospital environment is typically skewed. Television and film oftentimes depict doctors and other hospital employees as emotionally invested in the recovery of the sick and injured. This is only partially valid. Generally speaking, doctors are interested in the wellbeing of patients, not people. They focus their efforts not upon names, faces, or personalities, but instead dedicate their time to understanding the set of symptoms, vital signs, and medications inscribed across each patient care chart. A number of doctors admittedly refrain from speaking to their patients on a regular basis. They operate behind closed doors, delegating face-to-face interaction to nurses and technicians. When a patient dies or is successfully treated, his or her chart is closed and a new one is opened.

Needless to say, when I was first tossed into the sterile confines of the emergency room as a volunteer at age 16, I was troubled by such apparent callousness. When reporting medical findings to my superiors, I was instructed to refer to individuals not by their name, but instead by their room number. Similarly, I was not to engage in conversations with patients regarding family, friends, or life experiences. Again and again, I was advised that unnecessary friendliness would only distract from my duties as a healthcare provider. By the time I was promoted to a paid emergency room technician during my senior year in high school, I had a far better understanding of the need for insensitivity. In an environment that sees death on such a regular basis, attachment to patients is not only distracting, but also dangerous. When emotions threaten to affect one’s quality of care, they are better avoided altogether.

Upon reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Skloot’s audience is naturally distressed to learn of how society took every advantage of the HeLa cell line, all the while forgetting the name and story of Henrietta herself. While it is tempting to place blame on those who specifically treated and later studied the cells of Henrietta, her story serves to illustrate a far more universal truth regarding the medical landscape. It is always less trouble to remember the patient than the person.

Connections to Henrietta’s Story

September 7, 2011 9 comments

Today I was browsing through some of the articles that people has posted on one of the science blogs that Professor Myers suggested we read and I found one particularly interesting. It’s about sperm donors and the problems that are arising from the United States Sperm Bank. I thought is was fascinating because not only does it involve current day issues that I never even thought about, but it is also relates to “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” So here is my brief summary of the article, my thoughts, and how it relates to the novel.

The article is called 150 Kids, Anyone? US Sperm Banks Overdoing it and discusses the problems that are arising due to the fact that dozens of women are using the same sperm donor to have children. This means that for one sperm donor there could be 150 children born from that one donor. Both the mothers and the donors did not expect there to be that many, but certain sperm donors are very popular. This has become a problem because there are so many half-siblings now and they may not realize it, which could lead to incest and the spread of certain diseases. The article also brought up the following problem: “American sperm banks don’t keep rigorous records of children born from donor sperm, nor do they limit the number of children born from a particular donor.” I was very shocked by this last fact. I have never really given the idea of sperm banks too much thought, yet it truly surprises me that they would not limit the amount of children or keep good records.

All of this strongly correlates to Henrietta Lacks’ story.  One major connection is the problem of record keeping. Throughout the novel Rebecca Skloot has to dig deep to uncover the truths about Henrietta Lacks, who was also called other various names, like Helen Lane. That was the era though; there was no computer system that kept everyone’s names and Henrietta was black, which meant she was not always cared for as she should have been. That seems like a thing of the past though; with computers and  other current technologies one would think that record keeping would be no problem. Apparently for the sperm bank it is though, as more and more children are born from the same exact sperm donor. This is sad in that our culture has progressed so much since the 1950’s yet there are still problems such as these. This article also relates to Skloot’s book because of the real people that have to deal with this problem throughout their future. Just like there is a person behind the HeLa cells there are the children, mothers, and donors who all have stories that relate to the problems with the sperm bank. Children who were born using a sperm donor now have to be aware of who they are marrying and always wonder about their various half siblings. Also, HeLa cells are well-known among the science world but otherwise are not given much thought on a daily basis. Yet Henrietta’s family suffered through trying to understand and absorb the fact of the matter. And the idea of sperm donors and banks are also not given much thought by the public, yet everyday a woman may decide to use this method and it will influence the rest of her and her child’s life. It seemed unlikely at first that such an article would connect to Skloot’s book about Henrietta, yet they have very much in common.