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A Life of Suffering in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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Imagine if your mother died and her cells were stolen, as well as you and your siblings growing up in an abusive environment. That is the story of Henrietta Lacks and her family. She was a black woman, who had cervical cancer growing in her cervix. During her surgery to remove the cancer, they took a sample of a tumor in her cervix to have it examined in the lab. While scientists were working with Henrietta’s cells, they found out that they were immortal. At this point no one, including Henrietta, knew that the sample was even taken. Life continued for Henrietta and her family, but because of all the dramatic events that occured, the family continued to suffer throughout their lives. Elsie, the oldest daughter, was sent to Crownsville, hospital for the insane, for having Epilepsy. Deborah, also known as Dale, and the rest of her siblings, were forced to live with her abusive aunt and uncle. She spent most of her life trying to get answers about her mother’s cells. Her experiences were shown throughout the book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, which also conveyed the idea of how many different ways the Lacks family suffered throughout the years. In the movie, Henrietta’s life was shown in short, vague flashbacks to showcase parts of her life to give viewers a better perspective of what she went through. The book portrayed her life by describing Henrietta as if it were present time.

Suffering can be shown in many different ways throughout the book and movie. A way they were both the same was when Ethel would abuse the Lacks kids. Ethel is related to Henrietta because she is Henrietta’s brother Galen’s wife. Ethel and Galen forced themselves into the Lacks family’s house, after Henrietta died. Deborah told us that “Sometimes she would beat Joe for no reason while he lay in bed or sat at the dinner table. She’d hit him with her fists, or whatever she had close: shoes, chairs, sticks. She made him stand in a dark basement corner on one foot, nose pressed to the wall, dirt filling his eyes.” (Skloot 112). After the death of their mother, the Lacks kids were affected in ways no one could ever predict was coming. When Ethel moved in with the Lacks, she took all of her anger out on the kids. Since no one knew the kids were being abused, Joe received most of the abuse. No one was able to be there to protect the kids, leading to a lifetime of anger, violence, and homelessness as a result of Ethel’s abuse. Although Ethel’s abuse wasn’t the only thing that the Lacks kids suffered from.

The book showed suffering in a few different ways than the movie did. While Henrietta was getting radium treatments, she would walk from her cousins house to the hospital but once her sickness got worse, she stayed at the hospital and the doctors wouldn’t give her the full treatment. Rebecca told us “Her doctors tried in vain to ease her suffering. “Demerol does not seem to touch the pain,” one wrote, so he tried morphine. “This doesn’t help too much either.” He gave her Dromoran. “This stuff works,” he wrote. “But not for long.”” (Skloot 66). These notes from her physician reflect not just Henrietta’s level of pain, but also their desperation for something to work. Morphine is a very strong pain killer, and that didn’t even come close to helping Henritta’s pain. Later we find out from her autopsy, that Henrietta pain was caused by the invading tumors all over her body, which was causing the excruciating amounts of pain she had. Henrietta suffered from pain along with the family not getting any of the money.

The Lacks family suffered in ways that people never understood. Zakariyya explained ““Them doctors say her cells is so important and did all this and that to help people. But it didn’t do no good for her, and it don’t do no good for us. If me and my sister need something, we can’t even go see a doctor cause we can’t afford it. Only people that can get any good from my mother cells is the people that got money, and whoever sellin them cell”” (Skloot 246-47). Zakariyya (a.k.a. Joe) sums up the Lacks family’s anger about HeLa cells, about how the wealthy white people use their mothers cells for fame and profit to help other wealthy people, while the lacks are struggling to afford basic necessities. The family not getting any money, along with Elsie and her siblings getting abused was just the beginning of their suffering.

Suffering is a state of going through pain which Elsie Lacks, the oldest of the Lack kids, went though at Crownsville. Rebecca described the picture of Elsie, they found at Crownsville, “Her once-beautiful eyes bulge from her head, slightly bruised and almost swollen shut. She stares somewhere just below the camera, crying, her face misshapen and barely recognizable, her nostrils inflamed and ringed with mucus (…) She appears to be screaming. Her head is twisted unnaturally to the left, chin raised and held in place by a large pair of white hands.” (Skloot 273). The picture of Elsie Lacks at Crownsville, showed that not only did she suffer at the hands of the doctors, and scientists, but she was tested on since she had epilepsy. All together, the information about Elsie destroyed Deborah’s peace of mind. After seeing the picture of Elsie, Deborah got sick of thinking about the things that happened to Elsie. Deborah kept thinking about how she couldn’t do anything to help her. Suffering is shown many times throughout the book, from Henrietta’s treatment, to the family not getting any of the money, from Elsie in Crownsville.

Suffering was shown in different ways from the movie to the book. In the movie, Deborah and Rebecca went to go look at Crownsville to look for Elsie’s medical report. They found a worker who showed them her records. The worker found a picture and showed it to Deborah and Rebecca. According to the movie, ““I have never seen a picture in one of these reports before, it’s… Let me see. Let me see. Why they holding her neck like that? They shouldn’t be holding her neck like that. What are they doing here?”” During this time, many patients’ records were not kept or even had their picture with them. It was very rare to have the picture of the patient, and once Deborah saw it, it made her sick, seeing how Elsie was treated.

The one person in this story, who suffered the most out of everyone was Deborah Lacks. She told Rebecca things different from the book, “They took me to every doctor and psychiatrist, and, you name it, they said I had it. Paranoia, schizophrenia, anxiety.” Deborah suffered from mental and physical health, which she didn’t find out until she was older in life.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks movie and book have many similarities and differences. HeLa cells changed the medical field drastically, and not just because of them being special. Many people don’t know the story behind HeLa cells and how much the family had to suffer for it. The Lacks family suffered immensely through their lifetime and showed that perseverance will get anyone through the mud in which they are stuck in.

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