In The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, race is one of the main themes as Skloot tells her story about Henrietta. When Henrietta goes to the doctor to discover some pain that she has and how the doctors took samples out of her without her consent. Since she is African American, the doctors assume that she is uneducated and do not tell her what is wrong with her body. Henrietta was not the only one though, in the 1950’s doctors attempted various procedures on African Americans and other races like Latinos. Many were exploited and their bodies were used for medical reasons and were not treated like human beings, but like experiments. In the reading, Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson discusses the distinctions between whites and blacks and it connects to Henrietta because both stories deal with racism and prejudice views.
While undergoing treatment, the doctors were careless and did not tell Henrietta important information about her body.
Since Henrietta needed treatment for her cancer, she had to go 20 miles to John Hopkins hospital since it was one of the few that helped colored patients. There was a significant amount of segregation and it was difficult to find a place that served colored people.
This connects to the doctors not telling Henrietta important information about her body because although they accepted colored patients, they did not treat them equally. For example, although Henrietta’s doctor claimed that she was receiving the same care as any other white patients, “several studies show that black patients were treated and hospitalized at later stages of their illness than white patients…once hospitalized, they received fewer pain medication, and higher mortality rates”(Skloot 64).
There is no doubt that Hopkins Hospital is one of the best in the country but it does not mean anything when they are not treating their patients equally. It gets worse when Henrietta was asking her doctors when she can have children again, but they later informed her that the radiation made her infertile. Even though “warning patients about fertility loss before cancer treatment was standard practice at Hopkins, and something Howard Jones and TeLinde did with every patient”, since Henrietta was African American, the doctors didn’t bother giving her the information (Skloot 47). Before Henrietta ever received treatment at Hopkins, there was a note about hysterectomy stating that “…it is far better for her to make her own adjustment before the operation than to awaken from the anesthetic and find it a fait accompli”(Skloot 47). She should have the right to know that the radiation was going to affect the inside of her body as well as the outside.
Henrietta wasn’t the only African American being deceived by the doctors. Back then, doctors used African American as their experiment for Tuskegee Syphilis, assuming that all African Americans had it. “They recruited hundreds of African American men…then watched them die slow, painful and preventable death…” but they knew that penicillin could cure them (Skloot 50). The recruits were uneducated and didn’t ask much questions, they were there by default. Being bribed with a hot meal and a small amount of money motivated them to go to the clinic.Years later the story of the doctors doing so, went public fast and people were making assumptions that they actually “injected the men with syphilis in order to study them” proves that the doctors experiment was heartless and had no remorse towards their patients (Skloot 50). The doctors knew that the patients would be oblivious to the procedures and took advantage of it by not treating them like human beings but like animals with no soul or feelings.
When word got out about the source of the HeLa cells, everyone wanted to interview the family. Those people did not care that the family had no benefit coming out of the HeLa cells, there was no respect for the Lacks family and their privacy. Its clear that the family has had multiple calls from people interested in Henrietta’s cells, but not Henrietta herself. Deborah was affected the most by the calls, “she came near a stroke recently because of the agony she’s gone through regarding inquiries into her mother’s death and those cells”(Skloot 51).
Knowing this, Skloot made sure she was cautious with her words when interviewing Deborah over the phone. Once Deborah found out that Skloot wanted information about her mother and not the cells for her book, she was excited and said “everything just about her cells and don’t even worry about her name and was HeLa even a person… I think a book would be great”(Skloot 52). While telling the story of her mother, Deborah talked about a man that she didn’t name, who stole her mothers medical records and how “he sayin John Hopkins killed my mother and them white doctors experimented on her cause she was black”(Skloot 52). This connects back to racism because the doctors were treating Henrietta as an experiment rather than a patient.
The race issues in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks connects to Thomas Jeffersons, Notes on the State of Virginia, because throughout the reading, Jefferson clearly has racist views towards African American and Henrietta Lacks can relate to the racism. His argument is that “the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions, which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race”(Jefferson 552). Jefferson is stating that there is a barrier between whites and blacks and sooner or later the superior race will be the only race.
This connects to Henrietta because although Hopkins treats African Americans, they are still segregated and are not given the correct treatments and that is the barrier. Jefferson also states “in general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection” and that is not true because Henrietta’s cells were an amazing discovery and has contributed to many vaccines and discoveries regarding medication and illnesses so her participation was more than sensation (Jefferson 553). Another contradiction is Jefferson claims that “…they are inferior in the faculties of reason and imagination, must be hazarded with great diffidence” which is also not true because Henrietta for example was a confident and loving woman who loved to have fun and was far from shy. Jeffersons claims were merely out of racist views rather than actual facts. His claims had no evidence, there was no support for his words and the base of all issues were of race and not actual problems.
Race is a key component to inequality in Henrietta’s and other African Americans lives. Being segregated from busses, schools, water fountains, hospitals, everywhere there was segregation. Henrietta’s rights were not taken into action. Her cells were taken from her without her knowledge and the treatments the doctors were giving her caused her excruciating pain and made her body worse. The radiation created a black mark on her body, it also made her infertile, a woman’s worst nightmare. Being a woman of color, Henrietta’s rights were not considered and was overlooked because of the color of her skin.