Henrietta Lacks Reflections

While I was familiar with the Henrietta Lacks story, I found that watching this film led me to develop more of an emotional connection to the story itself. In high school, I read the novel on which the movie is based. When I first read the novel, I was intrigued and upset by the story, but found myself getting lost in the many medical details and the way that the book was organized. Watching the movie led me to develop a greater understanding and a new way to perceive the events that had been written about in the novel in a way in which I had not understood them before. This movie essentially was about a woman, Henrietta Lacks, who contracted cervical cancer and was treated at Johns Hopkins. At Johns Hopkins, researchers extracted tissue samples from her cancerous cells, and essentially made one of the greatest medical discoveries of all time allowing further advancement in research and the medical sciences because the cells they had taken from Henrietta, “He-La” cells, could reproduce continuously and live outside of the body. This discovery led to financial gains in many ways, mostly in the way of medical advancements and discoveries. The family of Henrietta Lacks was never given compensation and the family has suffered and faced many challenges since losing Henrietta. The movie focuses on the journey of a writer, Rebecca Skloot, to learn about Henrietta and her family and their history, and move beyond just the He-La cells that changed the world and finally talk about the family behind it.

One of the things I found to be most surprising at the end of the film was when they announced or declared that this type of law allowing researchers to take samples from their patients with no compensation still exists. I was shocked to hear that this law was still in place, and surprised to hear that there had not been that much outrage about the fact that this law still exists. However, I was not surprised to hear about the general experimentation that still happens, most likely in a lesser way than decades and centuries ago, but I was not surprised that this still happens due to the dynamics between researchers, doctors, and their patients or subjects. I think the power dynamic that exists between them acts as a gap furthering the distance the researcher or doctor may have from their patient, allowing them to forget that they most likely have more in common than differences, and the main concept that they are both human- have families and feel pain. This has been a major theme throughout the class, whether we are discussing healthcare disparities, residential segregation and the problems it causes, the Tuskegee study, immigration and health, or the novel – there are these conflicts in which individuals receive less access or lesser care than those who are not members of minority or low socioeconomic status groups, and there is essential miscommunication between the medical world, or authority figures, and the people they are trying to help. I think that this class highlights the need to focus on a humanistic and holistic way of treating individuals – that emphasizes communication and empathy above everything else. This type of perspective I think can be gained additionally through establishing guidelines and training for cultural competency and cultural humility across the medical profession- whether they’re healthcare providers, insurance agents, government officials, or child welfare service individuals.

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