What does the story of Henrietta Lacks contribute to our understanding of the relationship between health concepts and socioeconomic issues?
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot tells the story of the black woman with cervical cancer whose cells were the foundation of the HeLa cell line, which has been the foundation of much groundbreaking medical research in the past half century. Although the story was initially motivated by Skloot's interest in the history of the cell line, the narrative itself is a biography of Lacks herself and her extended family, and becomes a sort of case study on the interactions between a poor, uneducated black family and the wealthy, educated white medical establishment of her period.
The first thing we learn as we read the narrative is how health care is experienced by a poor rural black family as something essentially alien to their culture and experience. Travel to a hospital, medical care, and medications are almost beyond the financial means of the family, even with Medicaid. Health care bureaucracy and the hospital environment are alien and frightening. This combination of fear and expense means that poor families delay treatment. In Henrietta's case, this meant that by the time she sought treatment, her cancer was sufficiently advanced to be incurable, despite it being a type of cancer that now has a 91 percent 5-year survival rate if treated in a timely fashion.
Next, lack of education led to major problems in doctor-patient communication, follow-on care, and treatment compliance, not only in the case of Henrietta but also in the management of her daughter's diabetes.
Both of these elements of the story of Henrietta Lacks lead us to understand that medical advances can only benefit people if medical practitioners take into account socioeconomic obstacles to care. This may mean running community based clinics during the evenings offering free preventive care or scheduling longer appointments with patients from less well educated backgrounds to make sure that they understand their health situations and have access to and comprehension of follow-on treatment.