portrait of Henrietta Lacks with lines building on her image to a grid of connected dots

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot

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Do chapters 20-22 of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks change your opinion of Dr. George Gey?

Quick answer:

While the author tells us that Gey was under less stress than Henrietta, he had a better chance at life through medical treatment. While this treatment may have contributed to his death, he still lived longer than Henrietta.

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While each reader will have formed their own opinion of Dr. George Gey from his actions discussed earlier in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the news of his own cancer diagnosis presented in chapter 22 may stimulate a sympathetic response in many readers. However, some people will draw a sharp contrast between the choices that were available to the doctor and the limited options Henrietta had. Furthermore, Gey was older than Henrietta when he became ill and thus lived much longer than she did.

Gey was seventy-one when he learned that he had pancreatic cancer, a type of cancer that is usually fatal and often advances very quickly. As a research scientist who had been instrumental in applying the HeLa cells to many new kinds of research, Gey became interested in the possible applications of the cancerous cells from his own body. His desire to have cells surgically removed, imagining they might become a similarly immortal line, instead led to the discovery of the very advanced state of his illness. Because Gey’s doctors did not proceed further with the surgery, his wishes were thwarted.

From that point on, becoming even more determined to put his diseased body to scientific use, Gey became a willing subject to numerous experimental procedures, which apparently did not slow the disease’s progress. While he died within a few months, he had access to more treatments than Lacks did.

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