Why did Henrietta choose Johns Hopkins in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot?

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot recounts the true story of a woman who has only recently become known and significant in both the realms of history and science. She is known for her vital contribution of the first immortal human cell line known as HeLa. It has become news in recent years because of the questionable ethics of how the cells were gathered and used.

Henrietta Lacks was born in Roanoke, Virginia, in 1920, and she died in 1951. America, even in the North, was a very different place then. The Civil Rights movement was still at least a decade away, and racial inequality was everywhere.

Even more, the plight of the black population was dire. While it is true that they were technically free, they were still in the bondages of poverty and deprivation. So, not only were they unable to afford to pay for the same kinds of services (such as medical) as their white counterparts, they were often denied those services because of their ethnicity.

In this story, Henrietta Lacks is convinced something is wrong with her female parts, but she had just had another baby and her husband routinely exposed her to  sexually transmitted diseases, so she assumed it was something relatively normal and therefore quickly treated. Instead, her regular gynecologist confirmed that the “knot” she felt was not syphilis and recommended that she get a more thorough examination.

Henrietta immediately went to nearby Johns Hopkins Hospital, and this is how that happened:

The public wards at Hopkins were filled with patients, most of them black and unable to pay their medical bills. David drove Henrietta nearly 20 miles to get there, not because they preferred it, but because it was the only major hospital for miles that treated black patients. This was the era of Jim Crow—when black people showed up at white-only hospitals, the staff was likely to send them away, even if it meant they might die in the parking lot. 

Henrietta Lacks went to Johns Hopkins, a facility known now as one of the premier research facilities in the world, because it was one of the only accessible hospitals in which she, a black woman, was welcome.

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