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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“’Your cells will make you immortal.’ He told Henrietta her cells would help save the lives of countless people, and she smiled. She told him she was glad her pain would come to some good for someone” (Skloot 66). What significance could this statement possibly have not only for Henrietta, but for the doctors involved?

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In Chapter 8 of Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks , Henrietta Lacks is dying of metastasizing cervical cancer. Earlier, doctors collected cells from her cervix without telling her. As Skloot writes, "No one had told Henrietta that TeLinde [the surgeon] was collecting samples or asked if...

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In Chapter 8 of Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Henrietta Lacks is dying of metastasizing cervical cancer. Earlier, doctors collected cells from her cervix without telling her. As Skloot writes, "No one had told Henrietta that TeLinde [the surgeon] was collecting samples or asked if she wanted to be a donor" (page 33).

By Chapter 8, Henrietta Lacks is in a great deal of pain. Skloot quotes Henrietta's medical record: "Henrietta is a miserable specimen...She groans. She is constantly nauseated and claims she vomits everything she eats" (page 66). As she lies in the hospital suffering, her cell culture is growing in the laboratory, and they will go on to become the HeLa cell line that was used in several medical breakthroughs.

No one ever recorded if Henrietta had given Dr. George Gey, the doctor who harvested her cells, permission to do so. However, one microbiologist named Laure Aurelian remembers that Gey told Henrietta about her cells and recalls the incident cited in the question--that "George told me he leaned over Henrietta's bed and said, 'Your cells will make you immortal'" (page 66). The significance of this statement is that it suggests Henrietta knew about the use of her cells and was pleased that they would help others. In addition, the statement implies that Henrietta gave permission for her cells to be collected and used in research, though there is no other record that she did so. At the time, people were rarely asked permission when their cells were collected and cultured. In the case of Henrietta's cells, parts of her went on to make a great deal of money that never went to her family. In addition, some medical information about her was published without the knowledge of her family. However, the statement cited in the question implies that Dr. Gey told her what he was doing.

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