a poem for Henrietta Lacks: sister, daughter, mother, friend

Well, I am thrilled to the gills that HBO has set a release date of 22 April 2017 at 8:00 PM for the Oprah Winfrey-produced biopic on Henrietta Lacks.

Who is Henrietta Lacks, you ask? That is a wonderful question. I didn’t know either, until I was assigned to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks for summer reading when I was enrolled at a women’s liberal arts college in 2012.We were asked to read the book and provide a reader response. So. I read the book and was very moved by it–in spite of the fact that it was about 100 pages too long and should have been edited to include less information about the author’s personal, somewhat obsessive journey of discovery. Not that her obsession and journey weren’t important; I just felt an insatiable curiosity about Lacks, herself, and was not as interested in what the author was experiencing and feeling so much of the time. Perhaps other readers feel differently. That’s fine.

At any rate, my response was almost completely involuntary. What I mean is that I put pen to paper and this is what came pouring out of me. I felt incredibly compelled and inspired by this woman’s journey, her story, her life.

And then in 2016 I discovered the book was being made into a film. I was very happy for that news. This is a woman who should never be forgotten. She earned her immortality.

So, here you go. This is my piece on Henrietta Lacks. I submitted it to a couple of magazines to see if they would publish it. No response yet, so I will publish it here, just for you (get out your shovels, and dig).

“Sister, Daughter, Mother, Friend”

Part I: Unsung Heroine

Have you seen my sister, daughter, mother, friend?

She was born “Loretta Pleasant,” the first day of August, in the year nineteen hundred and twenty.

She was born in her family home, which was humbly situated at the end of a long, dusty road overlooking a train depot in Roanoke, Virginia.

She changed her name to “Henrietta,” but everyone who knew her called her “Hennie.”

Do you know her?

Her mother died in childbirth when Hennie was just four years old.

Can you imagine?

She was still a baby when she was sent to live with her maternal grandfather, Tommy Lacks—no mother to hold and comfort her, speak to her tenderly, and reassure her, to shape her, mold her into a young lady, or guide her on her path to womanhood.

Have you seen my sister, daughter, mother, friend?

Her name is Henrietta Lacks, and the one life she lived is still affecting all of us living today, more than sixty years after she died in the Colored Ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in East Baltimore.

Do you know her?

Surely you’ve seen her famous photograph in a magazine, a medical journal, a science textbook, or on a website proclaiming the gospel of her immortal cells—the ones that revolutionized medicine and scientific research, and changed the world forever?

In it, she’s standing proudly in a fine-looking dark suit made of wool or tweed—the jacket is perfectly tailored and has oversized buttons; the coordinating skirt is slightly flared, with a single pleat in front, and stops just below the knee. She looks confidently into the camera and smiles, hands on her hips, hair carefully coiffed. She is the picture of health, beauty, confidence, and radiance.

Yes, that’s Hennie,

My sister, daughter, mother, friend.

The cancer that killed her began on her cervix, and that Hopkins doctor, Howard Jones, said he’d never seen a tumor like that! That Dr. Jones cut away tissue from Hennie’s cervix to diagnose her condition, and then do you know what he did?

He cut away some more.

Sent her tissue to another Hopkins doctor, George Gey, who was the Head of Tissue Culture Research and had been trying to develop a line of human cells that would reproduce forever.

But all his attempts had inevitably ended in failure. That is, until he came across that slice of flesh from the tumor of Henrietta Lacks.

Do you know her now?

Hennie didn’t know it, but that perfect piece of human flesh, that slice of a malignant tumor from her cervix, was taken from her, sent to a lab where it was put in a petri dish, and carefully, artfully, carved up and divided, dropped into test tubes atop clots of chicken blood, and bathed in a wash of calf fetuses and human umbilical cord blood.

Those test tubes with pieces of Hennie’s cervix and their witches’ brew were next placed into a newly-invented roller drum machine, which rotated them ever so slowly and gently in a sterile, incubated room.

And what happened next would change the world forever.

Have you seen Hennie,

My sister, daughter, mother, friend?

Those cells of Hennie’s were unlike any cells before them, or any since—divided and doubled so fast, it made those researchers’ heads spin!

Mitosis is how cells reproduce and replicate themselves: mother cells create daughter cells genetically and chromosomally identical to themselves, generation after generation, after generation.

Do you know that’s just what Hennie’s cells did?

They kept right on dividing, multiplying, and growing, and nothing could stop them. No, those cells were destined to be what they would become:

The first immortal human cell line ever grown in a laboratory.

And they’ve been reproducing—at record speed—in culture, ever since 1951.

Surely you know her.

You should know that Henrietta was a generous soul, full of love, warmth, life, and laughter. She was a farmer, after all, and she knew how to nurture, to cultivate, and make things grow.

She always kept a hot meal on the stove for friends and relatives making their way to Turner Station to find work in the steel mills, but her generosity didn’t stop there. She gave them shelter—pillows and blankets and warmth from her hands and her heart and her soul.

Hennie was the epitome of femininity, from the delicate roundness of her gentle face, with soft brown eyes and lips painted deep red, to the tips of her meticulously painted toes.

She loved pretty things, like the satiny slip she washed by hand each night, and the beautiful, fanciful dresses and suits she wore over it, because in Hennie’s mind, real women never wore pants.

Hennie,

My sister, daughter, mother, friend.

It was the 1940’s in Baltimore, Maryland—a time of forced segregation when all people of mixed African descent in the United States of America (and the world) were constantly bombarded with laws and lies that told us we were inferior. Sub-human. Undeserving of equality. And intellectually wanting.

But Hennie was full of youth and hope and love and light and blind optimism. There was always something special about Hennie.

She and her cousin Sadie would get all dressed up and sneak out to boogie-woogie at the juke joint, stealing hearts—and time—not realizing that Hennie’s was almost up.

Do you know her now?

Hennie liked to sit up nights with her husband, Day, playing cards and listening to Bennie Smith play blues guitar, on a radio bought with Day’s hard-earned wages.

And she always loved her country roots, even if she did adapt to life in the city.

On the weekends, she and her five children made their way back to the home-house in Clover, Virginia, where there were pigs and cows, chickens and horses, and Hennie was right at home, churning butter on the front porch steps.

If Henrietta “lacked” anything, it wasn’t love or hope or faith or trust. It wasn’t joy or enthusiasm or determination or a glad heart or a helping hand.

What she did lack was a formal education, and the freedom to be treated with equal rights and privileges under the laws of American Society.

Yes, Henrietta lacked her freedom.

And Hennie,

My sister, daughter, mother, friend,

died a horrible and agonizing and excruciating death because she was “colored.”

It’s likely she was just the latest casualty in a string of medical experiments performed on “colored folks”—because “colored” citizens weren’t really citizens at all.

We were more like guinea pigs;

After all, while Hennie’s insides filled with malignant tumors the size of baseballs, hundreds of “colored” men in Macon County, Alabama were being told by U.S. Health Institute researchers that they were being treated for “bad blood” at the Tuskegee Institute, when, in fact, they had syphilis—and they were never informed of their illness, let alone treated for, or cured of it.

Instead, they were studied. Examined. Poked. Prodded. And scrutinized, like confused rats in a maze, while syphilis ravaged their bodies and their brains, infecting their wives and unborn babies.

Huh.

From March to September 1951, Hennie was blasted with so much radiation that her beautiful café-au-lait complexion was burned black as pitch from just beneath her breasts all the way down to her hips.

And since “colored” patients were offered treatment only in the latter stages of our illnesses, and only rarely administered medications to alleviate our pain, Hennie was turned away by doctors at Johns Hopkins again and again—doctors who told her to go home and rest, and that she would be fine. But how could she be “fine,” when her husband and cousins could hear her screaming and crying out in pain from a block away as they returned from a hard day’s work at the steel mill?

There was no end to her suffering; only cries and pleas for the Lord to put out the fire that ravaged her insides, replaced healthy organs with stony masses, made her blood toxic, and turned her body into a living, breathing septic tank.

Now do you know her?

Good.

Then let me tell you what those mystical, magical, immortal cells did for medicine, for science, and for you and me.

Part II: Unsung No More

The scientists named Hennie’s immortal cells “HeLa:” “He” for Henrietta and “La” for Lacks. Those super-powered, indomitable, seemingly indestructible cancer cells that originated in Hennie’s cervix, that multiplied until they overcame her body, crushed her spirit, and ended her one life—Ironically, gave life to millions, even billions more.

Surely you’ve heard of the advancements in chemotherapy, cell and animal cloning, gene mapping, and in vitro fertilization.

HeLa was critical in identifying the genes that suppress cancer as well as the ones that cause it.

Using HeLa, scientists developed drugs to treat herpes, influenza, Parkinson’s disease, and hemophilia.

Perhaps most significantly, HeLa granted a German scientist the ability to identify HPV, or the Human Papillomavirus, as the primary cause of cervical cancer—the very cancer that killed Hennie—and led to the development of the vaccine that doctors administer today to pre-teens in an effort to prevent it.

A scientific accident using HeLa led to the discovery of the accurate number of chromosomes in the human cell: forty-six. And with that discovery came the ability to identify chromosomal disorders like Turner’s, Klinefelter’s, and Down’s syndromes, and the diagnoses of many genetic diseases.

HeLa went up in the first space missions and was used to test the effects of nuclear bombs and atomic energy and just about anything else you can think of, on human cells.

And all this is but a rudimentary introduction. There is literally no end to the research conducted with HeLa, Henrietta Lacks’ immortal cells—the cells that launched a multi-billion dollar industry in biomedicine and scientific research, lining the pockets of greedy, capitalistic opportunists who labeled HeLa “general scientific property” while Hennie’s descendants languished in poverty, her children unable to afford medical care or medications that existed solely because of the research done with their mother’s immortal cells.

Just as her Anglo-American great-grandfather (Benjamin Lacks, a Virginia slave owner) had left land and property— and thus, prosperity—to both his “white” and “colored” offspring, Henrietta had every right to do the same.

Can you imagine the start in life her children and grandchildren would’ve had if they’d seen even a fraction of the wealth that her immortal cell line generated?

Billions upon billions of dollars, but Hennie never got a penny.

And neither did her husband or children or any of her surviving relatives. Isn’t it shameful?

Henrietta “Hennie” Lacks,

My sister, daughter, mother, friend,

died on the fourth day of October, in the year nineteen hundred and fifty-one, about six weeks after her thirty-first birthday.

There was no written obituary, and after a much-anticipated autopsy, she was shipped back in a pine box to the home-house in Clover, Virginia, where she was buried out back, with “colored” and “white” Lackses, in an unmarked grave.

She was a beautiful, vibrant woman, and she lived!

HeLa, the first immortal human cell line, came from a cancerous tumor on her cervix, and has been simultaneously advancing, surprising, mocking, thumbing its nose, and defeating science ever since it was first dropped into a test tube and grown in culture in 1951.

Do you know what else?

Twenty years after her death, when Dr. Howard Jones went back to review Hennie’s file in order to commemorate the death of his Johns Hopkins colleague, George Gey, he saw her biopsy results for the first time and realized she’d been misdiagnosed all those years ago as a result of pathologist “error.”

And he examined a piece of her cervix that he still had preserved in a jar, on a shelf, and immediately concluded that the correct diagnosis was “a very aggressive adenocarcinoma of the cervix.”

He said it wouldn’t have changed her treatment any.

Huh.

In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a Morgan State University sociologist called Hennie an “unsung local heroine” and quoted an unnamed historian as saying that HeLa was “one of the most dramatic and important [tools] in the history of research at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institution.”

I’d like to add a few words to that: “…and in the world.”

We owe you a helluva lot, Hennie,

My sister, daughter, mother, friend.

We remember you. We celebrate you. We love you.

And as for you, the reader, in case you didn’t before,

Now you know her.

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