Henrietta Lacks, Part 2: Death

Hello again, Bookies:

Thank you for all of your insightful comments on last week’s post. I especially enjoyed the discussion about the doctors’ attitudes regarding their research. While some people thought Gey was taking advantage of the indigent population, many other posters had no qualms with his decision to take a tissue sample from Henrietta without her knowledge. I think that debate is a great way to springboard into this week’s reading assignment, which focuses in part on the ethics of human experimentation.

Chester Southam, the chief of virology at Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research, wanted to test if contact with the cancerous HeLa cells could actually cause cancer in humans. For his study, Southam injected roughly one dozen cancer patients with HeLa, never informing them that the injection contained live cancer cells. Southam then watched as cancerous nodules formed around the injection site. He removed some but not all of the nodules, with the aim of discovering if the body would eventually fight off the cancerous nodules or if the cancer would spread. As a result of these tests, Henrietta’s cancer metastasized in one test subject’s lymphatic system. I could never condone the injection of cancer cells into another person without their consent, and Southam’s decision to leave some of his test subjects’ cancerous nodules intact seemed nothing short of cold-blooded. He must have known that he was endangering the health of his patients, yet he persevered with his experimentation. Over the next few years, Southam continued to inject HeLa cells into hundreds of hospital patients in the name of research. If questioned, Southam claimed that he was testing the patients for cancer. Skloot explains: “And he believed he was: Since people with cancer seemed to reject the cells more slowly than healthy people did, Southam thought that by timing the rejection rate, he might be able to find undiagnosed cases of cancer.” What did you think of Southam’s decision to inject HeLa into unsuspecting patients? Does it matter to you that he thought the injection could diagnose cancer?

Southam tried to continue his research at the Jewish Chronic Disease Hospital, but three staff doctors refused to inject HeLa cells into patients without their knowledge. These doctors resigned, and, by sending their resignation letters to the press, started a firestorm of controversy. When the case eventually went before the Board of Regents, I was shocked by how many doctors came to Southam’s defense. According to many doctors, Southam’s behavior was considered ethical. Did you expect a different reaction from the scientific community? Thankfully, the Board of Regents and the National Institutes of Health deemed Southam’s actions inappropriate, and the NIH declared that it would not fund any research that used human test subjects unless the study had an independent review board.

While these ethical debates raged in the medical world, the Lacks family was learning how to survive without Henrietta. After her death, Henrietta’s cousin Galen and his wife, Ethel, moved in with Day, ostensibly to help raise the children while Lawrence, the eldest, was in the military. Ethel’s treatment of Henrietta’s children was nothing short of deplorable. In addition to working them from morning to night with little food, Ethel would beat the three children, especially Joe, for even the tiniest infractions. In 1959, eight years after Henrietta’s death, the three youngest children moved in with Lawrence and his girlfriend, Bobbette, to escape the abuse.

Yet for Deborah, Ethel’s violent outbursts could not compare with the molestation that she suffered from Galen. Galen started abusing Deborah when she was as young as 10. In addition to luring her into isolated situations, Galen would molest Deborah in the back seat of the car while Day drove. I can’t shake the image of Galen, furious that Deborah had refused to get into the car, screaming obscenities at her and punching her in the face, all in the presence of Day. Deborah never revealed Galen’s actions to anyone, partly because she was afraid that she would get in trouble and partly to protect Galen. Despite the assaults, Deborah felt closer to Galen than she did to her own father.

As I read about Deborah’s youth, one thought that I could not escape was: Where was Day? Before Henrietta’s death, we don’t get to hear much about Day’s role as a father. Aside from the anecdote about picnicking under Henrietta’s hospital window, I can’t recall a single story in which Day interacts directly with his children. We do know that he never visited Elsie, as Henrietta did every week. In this section, his absence speaks volumes. His children were raised with a “seen but not heard” mentality and were terrified to act out of turn and upset the adults. Ethel took no pains to hide the beatings she doled out to Day’s children, but Day never objected. Even when the children move out and the extent of the physical abuse comes to light, Skloot describes Bobbette’s rage but never mentions Day. In fact, Day has no noticeable reaction to his children’s new living arrangements whatsoever. Day is presented as neither an abusive nor a paternal figure—he is working two jobs and does not seem to be a major presence in his children’s lives. What did you think of Day throughout this section? Did you expect more of him?

As she aged, Deborah’s relationships with men continued to be troubled. At 16, Deborah got pregnant with her neighbor Alfred “Cheetah” Carter’s child. She later married Cheetah, but her husband’s drug abuse made him violent and she eventually left him. I respected Deborah immensely for her decision to leave her husband. Despite the adversities she was faced with, she grew to be an independent, strong-willed woman who was prepared to fight for her life and the lives of her children. What is your impression of Deborah? I find myself drawn to her. I can’t wait to hear more about Deborah in Part 3, when Skloot will reconnect with her. I am also eager to see how Day and Deborah interact now, knowing how strained their relationship once was.

Let’s finish the book for next Thursday’s discussion. Please leave your reactions to Part 2 in the comment section—I’m very interested to hear your feedback. Thanks for reading! Until next week…

—Erin

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