Loretta Pleasant born to mother Eliza Lacks Pleasant on August 1st, 1920 she was one of 10 children. At the age of 4, Loretta’s mother died and Loretta’s father David was left alone to take care of all 10 children. This was an extremely difficult task for him to fill, so he did the only thing he could and that was to turn to other family members for help.
When Johnny, Loretta’s father, arrived in the state of Southern Virginia in a small town named Clover just a few miles past Difficult Creek on the Banks of The River of Death; Henrieta was separated from her 9 siblings and made to live with her grandfather, Mr. Tommy Lacks.
No one is quite sure when and why Loretta Pleasant changed her name to Henrietta Lacks, but I’m sure whatever her reason it must have been very important to her.
While living with her grandfather, Henreita shared a room with her cousin David. Little did they know at the time; one day they would become husband and wife and have 5 children together.
In 1935 at the age of 14, Henrieta gave birth to a handsome baby boy named Lawrence and again in 1939 to a beautiful baby girl named Elsie. It wasn’t until April 10th, 1941 in Halifax County, Virginia, that the young couple decided to make it official and got married. They continued to have 3 more children, Deborah, David Jr., and Zakariyya.
Henrieta Lack’s life was not short of constant hardship, toils, and struggles. As a child, Henerita tended to her chores in the wee hours of the morning feeding the farm animals and tending to the tobacco field.
Jim Crow was in full swing and Henrieta was left with no other alternative, but to walk two miles each day after finishing all of her chores to school and back home. She couldn’t attend the school closet to her because it was for white children only.
It should come as no surprise, that she dropped out of school in grade 6. Henerita, like other close family members before her now worked in the tobacco fields full time.
During the year 1941, America was at war. Tobacco farming became very difficult to make ends meet and it became even more desperate for black families to make a living or barely survive.
Henrieta’s cousin persuaded her and the family to move North in hopes of having a better life. Factory work was plentiful, and there was a high demand for steal. The family took their chances and made to move to Turner Station.
In the factories, many black men took jobs that white men rejected. These black men were paid higher wages than what was expected at the time. The higher wages came at a deadly cost for some. Unknown to them they were exposed to deadly chemicals, one of these chemicals was asbestos. When all the men returned home, they would, in turn, expose their families through their clothes to these fatal toxic chemicals.
Even though Henrieta lived in the city, she missed country life and would often return home to visit family in the country whenever she could. Henreita oldest daughter would often accompany her on these excursions back home.
Approximately one to two years before being diagnosed with cervical cancer. Henrieta knew something wasn’t right internally. She would speak to her friend Sadie and her cousin Margaret, but no one else, not even her husband knew of this. They tried to reassure her that it wasn’t anything too serious and that she should go see a doctor, but she refused.
Shortly after she became pregnant with her last baby boy, Joe. They both took a sigh of relief convinced that the pain was due to her pregnancy. But even after giving birth Henrieta felt something still wasn’t right.
It became increasingly difficult for Henrieta to look after Elsie while attending to her fifth baby. Elsie was unable to talk and was later diagnosed with epilepsy and other mental disorders. At the advice of her doctors, Henrieta felt she had no other choice but to institutionalize her beautiful daughter to the Crownsville Hospital for the Mentally Insane.
This weighed heavy on her mind, and she was never the same again. Family members said, “A part of Henrieta died the day she left Elsie at Crownsville.” How much could one woman bare? As if this wasn’t enough? Henrieta began experiencing excruciating pain even worse than before.
Henrieta, a woman with such superhuman strength, kept this hidden and to herself for as long as she could. After seeing her regular physician, she was referred to a Specialist. The pain became unbearable and having no other choice she asked her husband David to take her to the hospital.
She had no idea what they would find and thought they would fix whatever needed to be fixed, and she would be able to go home cured. Unfortunate for her she would never find comfort again. While at John Hopkins Hospital also known as a Medical Research Center, Henrieta knew this would be her only option to get the medical treatment she so desperately needed.
John Hopkins was not the most sympathetic place for black people. In many cases, at this medical center, they would turn away black people and even refused the terminally ill. It was also said that they performed many experiments on black people. Henrieta’s case was very different. She was examined by Dr. Howard Jones, he was the gynecologist on duty the day of she came in.
Dr. Jones discovered a mass the size of a nickel exactly where Henrieta complained of the pain. It was said to have resembled the color of grape Jell-O. After the examination, she was told to go home to await the results.
Dr. Jones was stunned to know that Henrieta had recently given birth and that there was no mention of a tumor of any sorts in her medical records. This led him to believe that while giving birth the cancer was not present. Had it had been present there was no way it would not have documented; therefore, he concluded that it had to have grown after the birth of her child. And if that would have been the case, this simply would have meant that the tumor would have grown at a rapid speed.
During the examination, Dr. Jones performed a biopsy and would in his later years admit that he had never seen anything like this in his entire life. After the biopsy was completed and the results came back, it was what he had expected, CANCER……Henrieta was diagnosed with Epidermoid Carcinoma of the cervix, stage 1.
Unknown to Henrieta, when Dr. Jones examined her he sent a sample of Henrieta’s tumor to the Dr. George Gey’s lab, the head of Tissue Culture Research. When Dr. Gey’s assistant Mary began to work on the tissue samples, she named them HeLa, (the first to letters of her first and last name). Mary then sliced the cell very carefully and left it overnight in a petri dish.
The next morning to her surprise the cell had duplicated itself. Each cell kept duplicating itself, and the cells that were duplicated made replicas of themselves and so on and so forth, whatever the size of the dish the cells would fill out the dish by making copies of itself.
This meant living cells could live outside the human body. This was an astonishing new discovery the only one of its kind to be discovered by the doctors of the John Hopkin’s Hospital. This new discovery would give scientist the ability to test any new drug on living human cells without physically touching the patient and seeing what the end results would be before actually using the new drug or vaccine on a living human being.
Henrieta was given the drug Radium to ease the agonizing pain she was experiencing; which was commonly used for patients of many different ailments. Even though this was a popular drug at the time, it was extremely toxic and would cause cancer because it was a radioactive metal.
At first, it seemed to have worked, and the doctors thought the cancer was gone. But over a short time, cancer spread throughout Henrieta’s body like wildfire. The pain was unbearable, and even though they claimed to have had administered and tried almost every other drug to ease the pain nothing worked. On Oct. 4th, 1951 she died a slow, painful and tormenting death with her sister by her side.
Henrieta came into this life with all the odds stacked against, being a poor black woman born in the USA, yet she still prevailed and carried on with 5 beautiful children. She was incredibly brave and fought until her very last breath.
The significance of the HeLa Cells can never be overemphasized. Because of Henrieta’s cells, vaccines have been developed, a vaccine for polio was discovered, an array of other vaccines were made, certain diseases were cured, and the list goes on.
Henrieta’s contribution to science can never be overstated. The hospital and the doctors stood to gain the most from the tragic life and death of this beautiful young woman. Millions upon millions of dollars were made at the expense of her death.
The Lacks family received absolutely nothing from the exploitation and theft of the HeLa Cells. A patient’s consent is not required for research on human tissue obtained during medical treatment if the donor’s identity is removed. They made sure this was achieved with Henrieta. It was to their advantage and her demise. Henrieta never donated her tissue sample.
During her stay at the hospital, Richard TeLinde, the then leading cancer specialist stole the tissue sample without Henrieta’s consent. He believed that if patients were treated for free under the hospital’s care, then that would give all rights to steal and do whatever they wished without the patient’s consent. Which was and is WRONG!!
HeLa Cells still lives and will continue to live helping people all over the world, even when we are gone……………….
Great movie to watch. Very Educational: