The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Study Guide

Rebecca Skloot

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Symbols


HeLa Cells

The HeLa cells symbolize the failure of medical ethics when it comes to the poor and people of color. They also symbolize the rapid progress of medical research. The HeLa cells brought huge leaps in the medical profession's ability to prevent deadly diseases such as polio, help people become parents through in-vitro fertilization, and find treatments or cures for illnesses, including certain types of cancer. However, these cells came from a real person, a black woman, who was not asked for permission to use her cells and was not aware the sample had been taken for research purposes. The disrespect for patient consent, as well as the outright lies Henrietta's family was told about research using their own cells, show a lack of concern black patients experienced far more often than whites did. Black people and poor people were experimented on without their consent and without knowing what was happening to them, activities now considered highly unethical.

Crownsville Hospital

Crownsville Hospital, formerly the Hospital for the Negro Insane, symbolizes everything wrong with the way black people have been treated in the medical field and in society in general. Elsie Lacks, Deborah Lacks's sister and Henrietta Lacks's first daughter, had epilepsy and was developmentally disabled, so Henrietta Lacks was encouraged by doctors to put her in Crownsville Hospital. She did so against her better judgment and didn't question the doctors' advice; however, she mourned the move and visited Elsie every week. Henrietta's fears about the hospital were more than correct. The hospital, at the time, performed pneumoencephalography on epileptic patients, which would have caused the horrific symptoms listed on Elsie's record before her death at 15. In addition, the hospital was extremely overcrowded, with nightmarish conditions for patients, packing them into rooms together with two or more to a bed, not separated by gender and often including sex offenders. Patients went into the hospital at a rate slower than the hospital's death rate, and the doctors did not gain consent from patients or families for the procedures they did. The hospital and its inhuman treatment of its patients symbolize the injustice toward black people in medicine. Black people, including Elsie, did not receive the kind of treatment a white person would have received, nor would a white person have been expected to suffer under those conditions. White people were also not committed to such hospitals for maladies as innocuous or vague as "lack of self-confidence." Deborah's search for the truth about her family reveals much more than she bargained for when she learns about the painful death her sister suffered at Crownsville. For Deborah, Crownsville also symbolizes the abandonment she feels, having lost her mother, in her view, to the medical profession, and the abandonment she thinks her sister must have also felt.

Photo of Henrietta Lacks

The iconic photo of Henrietta Lacks, dressed in a suit and high heels, with one hand on her hip and a huge smile on her face, symbolizes the vibrant spirit her family says she exuded. Henrietta took great care with her appearance and had a larger-than-life personality, taking care of everyone around her by feeding them, giving them a place to stay and chat, and spending time with them. However, the photo also symbolizes the loss of privacy for the Lacks family, because the photo somehow got out to the press without the permission of the family. Henrietta's photo, which everyone who knows about her story recognizes, is just one of many things taken from the Lacks family, including Henrietta's cells, her children's cells, their family photos, and Henrietta's medical records, without permission and without explanation. The photo on the cover of Skloot's book, which has been placed there with the family's permission, symbolizes the family's repossession of their mother's life story, her privacy, and her legacy.

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