“The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot

The book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”, written by Rebecca Skloot, focuses on three parts: Life, Death, and Immortality. It is about an African American woman named Henrietta Lacks, who died from cervical cancer. Lacks was married to David Lacks and mother of five children.

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Before her death doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital collected samples of her cells without her or her family’s consent. The cells were obtained for the purpose of doing research and experiments. Cultured by Dr. George Gey, Lacks cells were soon discovered to be immortal becoming the first immortal cells named HeLa cells. Although, the discovery of HeLa made great contributions to science, one theme that was consistent in the book was racism and poverty.

The treatment that African Americans received back in the day was very limited and harsh. After Lacks diagnosis, it was necessary she received treatment for cancer. In order to received the treatment she had to go to John Hopkins Hospital since it was one of the hospitals that helped colored patients. “This was the era of Jim Crow, where 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” (Skloot, 2010, p. 15). Due to Lacks being poor, she did not received proper medical treatment for her cancer, and doctors felt justified to take tissue samples without her consent or knowledge. “Many scientists believed that since patients were treated for free in the public wards, it was fair to use them as research subjects as a form of payment” (Skloot, 2010, p.30).

An experience I lived that relates to the reading is when my mother was unable to receive adequate medical care. Unfortunately, my mother had a heart attack and was unable to continue working. As a result, she lost her job and her medical insurance. Many times doctors would deny medical treatment to her because she was unable to pay for her care. She struggled to receive medication and keep up with follow up appointments. My mother had to look for clinics and hospitals within the her community, were treatment to Hispanics and low income families was offered. “She, like most black patients, only went to Hopkins when she thought she had no choice” (Skloot, 2010, p.16). This makes me wonder if the kind of medical treatment a patient gets is based the patient’s condition or it’s ethnicity? Although, nowadays the majority of patients are being treated based on their medical condition, we still continue to see patient’s not receiving care due to lack of health insurance. At the clinic where I take my children, there is a sign posted that states “Please provide staff with health insurance card or payment is due at time of service”. This is very discouraging to patients who do not have insurance due to low income or being unemployed. As a result, these patients do not get regular physical exams and are noncompliant with their health and medications.

In clinical I have experience situations in which patients who are insured by a private health insurance get better treatment than those who have public aid or Medicare. Usually patients who are insured, are kept at the hospital for a longer period of time regardless their condition. While uninsured patients are usually discharged within a couple of days due to nonpayment. Unfortunately, many of these people without health insurance are African Americans and Hispanics. Many blacks, like Lacks, received inferior treatment than whites due to their race and lack of money. “But several studies have shown that black patients were treated and hospitalized at later stages of their illnesses than white patients. And once hospitalized, they got fewer pain medications, and had higher mortality rates”, Skloot, 2010, p.64). At one point, I asked myself, what would I do if I had no health insurance for my children and I? I believe that I would of done the same thing Henrietta did, go to the nearest hospital that would provide care for my children and I. I would also, look for resources or facilities that provide health care insurance at an affordable price. It is very difficult situation when you find yourself sick and with no health insurance. I have lived it with my parents and have seen how much they have struggled.

In class, I have learned that medical treatment should be provided to every individual regardless if they are insured or uninsured. Medical treatment should not be neglected to patients based on their race, religion, and gender. Patients should be treated with equality and respect. Informed consents should also be provided to patients when seeking medical care and no doctor should perform any treatment or procedure without the patient’s consent. Many patients, including myself, when looking for medical treatment we tend to trust our doctors and expect the best care. I know that I would feel betrayed and violated if I ever had tissues removed without a consent or if the expected care wasn’t received. If our mother is so important to science, why can’t we get health insurance?” (Skloot, 2010, p.168). Nowadays, it is expected that every person living in the United States should have health insurance, either through their employer or by purchasing a healthcare plan. Patients must also be provided with informed consents and doctors are entitled to explain to the them the risks and benefits of such treatment.

In conclusion, in “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”, we learned about an African American woman named Henrietta Lacks, whose cells were removed without her consent. Although, her cells brought new discoveries to science, throughout her life we constantly see issues regarding ethics, racism, and poverty. These issues continue to exist in today’s world and It is our responsibility as health care professionals to respect, informed, and provide the best care that we can to every patient regardless of where they come from.

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