Monday, March 4, 2013

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: II


This is part two in a five part series.
Henrietta Lacks, you find is the woman behind the infamous HeLa cells, the woman no one knows of, and whose life, as extraordinary as it was, is forgotten. She grew up in a small town called Clover where she was raised by her Grandfather on an old tobacco farm, its roots tracing back to the time of slavery. It is in this town that Henrietta grew up with the man she would marry – David Lacks –  and from here would move to Baltimore, where she’d first discover something was wrong with her. It all started with blood, a bath, and a knot in a place a knot oughtn’t have been. Part One: Life of the book is predominantly set during the early fifties, when the Civil Rights Movement was a dream, Dr. King had yet to march, Rosa Parks hadn’t taken a stand, and Malcolm X was just getting out of prison. To the most of the United States Segregation was law. If a black man or woman needed to be treated medically they’d have to find a hospital that was dictated to treat only African Americans and if they went to a white only hospital they were likely to be kicked out, no matter the extent of their wounds. For Henrietta, she’d either have to take the train in from Baltimore to Johns Hopkins or have her husband Day drive her there around his working schedule. It was inside the Segregated walls of Johns Hopkins Hospital that Henrietta would be diagnosed with and treated for cancer, it would be weeks later until she told anyone about it. Upon the instructions of Dr. George Gey, a portion of both of Henrietta’s healthy cells and tumor cells were collected then shipped down to his lab where his assistant Mary Kubicek “…were sure Henrietta’s cells would die just like all the rest.” And her healthy cells did die in culture, but her tumor cells, well they reproduced every twenty-four hours.
Now normally I am not one for science of any kind, it is boorish and rather frankly disgusting. Coming from a strictly Fascist/ Lutheran German household, I was always taught that as a girl there were things a young lady ought to talk about and things ladies never talk about. Intestates, bowel movements, and medical journals were off-limits, how to dry potpourri, fold a cloth napkin into a swan, quote the classics, and bake the softest Frankfurter Kranz[1] for birthdays however, was basically how large portions of my childhood was spent. So when I got to the section where Skloot details Gey’s  laboratory and how they grew cells, I got an instant sense of fore-boding. I could practically hear my Grandma saying to me “Why are you bothering with such brutish things Annie? Come supper is about ready, help fold the napkins.” However, I had to read on and am glad I did, Skloot’s writing eluded me at every turn, not entirely fluid, not so rigid or complex, and not as crud as I though the book would be. I’ve never enjoyed the inner workings of a laboratory before. Then she turned her focus onto Gey, where she dived into his past as a poor man who took pains to put himself through Medical school with the sort of dry wit the Bronte sisters would use. She has a way of making any character relatable to a point where the reader would sympathize with them by simply saying something like this: “George dug a small coal mine in the hill behind his parents’ house. He’d crawl through… with a pick, filling buckets for his family and neighbors so they could keep their houses warm.”


[1] Frankfurter Kranz: A Buttercream filled Bundt cake basically. It would be topped clusters of chopped nuts, have peeks of hazelnut frosting positioned around the circle cut on the top of each peek would be a cherry. My Grandpa use to call it the Frankfurter Crown, symbolizing Frankfurt which was known as the crown city of the German Empire.