With Oprah Winfrey placing her support behind a docudrama about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks biography, the audience will be in for an eye opening experience into how past medical practices were so cold and clinical. Henrietta Lacks’ medical issues were nothing but experimentation and research for doctors and lab staff.
Henrietta was a woman of African American origin, born into an impoverished family. She had ten brothers and sisters and her mother passed away after having the tenth child. The family had been moved to Clover, Virginia and split up amongst relatives, out of necessity. Henrietta did not have an easy life: as a child and teenager, she worked in the tobacco fields, helping the family to pick the plants every day to support her grandfather. She married extremely young (she was just a teenager herself when she had her first child and then got married shortly after). Henrietta and her family moved to Maryland to work on at a steel mill. Life was not glamorous: it was tough, back-breaking work for everyone involved. Long days and long hours were involved in working at the plant or raising a family.
Henrietta had yet another challenge to face: her health was not good. She was in constant pain and didn’t actively go to a doctor to get checked out. I guess I take for granted that we have good health care today (speaking as a Canadian) and you can visit your doctor, take the time to ask questions and if need be, make additional appointments to see a specialist. This was NOT the case with Henrietta. It was tough to go see a doctor, but imagine being a woman of color, having to get a drive to the hospital and you were not permitted on the main floor. You had to go to the basement if you were a person of color. Remember the below stairs scenes of Cinemax’s THE KNICK?
The physicians who ‘so called’ treated Henrietta were Dr. George Gey and Dr. Richard Telinde at John Hopkins Hospital and they conducted some physical examinations of Henrietta while she was under their care. In my humble opinion, they were very lax in their treatment of her. I found the treatments to be painful and barbaric, with no proper research to prove that it would be successful. Henrietta basically took the doctor’s word to be law and went along with whatever they recommended. It was during these evasive procedures that Dr. Gey received a sample of cervical cells of Henrietta Lacks. Dr. Gey and his wife had been conducting medical research into seeing whether or not they could grow some sort of cell division outside of the human body which prompted that harvest.
The book flips back and forth from past to present. The author, Rebecca Skloot (pictured), states that when she was conducting some of her interviews with the family members of Henrietta, that there was a lot of mistrust, confusion and anger. I don’t blame the family for one second. These people cannot afford health care and the fact that the medical field profited off of a sample of cells taken from Henrietta – without her knowledge or consent – and never once gave a share of the profits to the family is really awful. The family could have used the funds to help with the day to day costs of living, perhaps put some money away in the bank, and send grandchildren to college or university or simply to pay down debts. Some of the family members didn’t necessarily believe that the cells were cultured through medical/scientific means, but rather that it was voodoo, or some such thing.
I understand that research needs to be carried out in order for there to be medical breakthroughs, new medicines, antibiotics, treatments, etc., for patients to get better or have a variety of medications to choose from. The only thing that I could appreciate about how fast and hearty the HeLa cells were is that a lot of experimentation did not take place on laboratory animals. I’m all for getting rid of that barbaric practice, given the medical advances in science and technology. Apart from that, the novel examines the remaining family members, their experiences with Henrietta, their life stories and how their lives played out. When they find out about the HeLa cells and the money made from them, it’s painful. They were never given a fair share of the monies and as the direct descendants of Henrietta; they were, in my humble opinion, more than entitled to a good chunk. Once the author interviews and meets the siblings, the nieces, nephews and children of Henrietta, it becomes clear that these people had a very tough time with the loss of their mother/aunt/cousin/friend. Decades later, they finally received information about the HeLa cells, the medical breakthroughs for treatments and the financial endowment that they deserved all along. But the legal means and investigations that had to take place, the time spent on it all and the emotional journey for the Lacks’ family was not without a toll. What should have taken place all those years ago was that a huge financial percentage of the HeLa profits been bestowed on the family of Henrietta. To think that these people were struggling financially, emotionally and health wise for pretty much their entire lives, well, the money could have gone to them in order to improve their life. And they should have had some money set aside as a means of acknowledging the huge debt scientists and doctors owed to the late Henrietta. I think scholarships should have been set up for all of Henrietta’s children, grandchildren or nieces and nephews. Perhaps I am a bit of a bleeding heart, but after reading what the family went through – growing up without a mother, finding out the contributions to science and not ever receiving a cent from it – well, I just think that the Lacks family deserved better.
Having a person such as Oprah Winfrey, who has the money, the celebrity status and the means to get this book transformed into a film is a powerful thing indeed. I hope that the cast can convey the ups and downs that Henrietta and her extended family had to face. Personifying Henrietta Lacks herself is Renée Elise Goldsberry. Her story is told through the experiences of her daughter Deborah Lacks played by Oprah Winfrey. Also in the cast is Courtney B. Vance as Sir Lord Keenan Kester Cofield, a con artist involved in their matters, Reed Birney is Dr. Gey and a number of actors as members of the Lacks family including Leslie Uggams and Melvin Van Pebbles as cousins Sadie and Cootie. We have proof the the production is underway right here.
I look forward to watching this book come to life as an HBO Films presentation. How about you?