The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman who became sick with cancer and was exploited by her doctors. Not only did they withhold the treatment she needed to get better, but also experimented on her and took her cells without her knowledge or consent, which ultimately led to her death. This film shows how great of an impact Henrietta’s medical experience still has on her family long after she had passed away. Henrietta’s children all seem to have some significant physical and mental health issues, which can be attributed to their mother’s traumatic experience, mistrust of the medical system, and less access to quality healthcare, among other things. I think this film is a really great illustration of how different a black American’s experience with the healthcare system can be compared with that of a white American. Henrietta’s medical experience alone was surely terrible, but even after she had passed, her family does not seem to have much trust or respect for medical institutions in America, or even for people unassociated with the healthcare system who asks about Henrietta. Someone posing as a lawyer vowed to bring justice and monetary compensation to Henrietta’s family, but he ended up taking advantage of them and suing them for an enormous amount of money. It’s bad enough that they can’t trust doctors, but now they don’t even feel like they can trust  anyone who brings up their mother’s name. What is even harder is that the Henrietta’s children still didn’t know a lot about their mother, and, Deborah especially, wanted to know everything she could about her. So, it makes sense that she was apprehensive about Rebecca, but also so eager to work with her at the same time. I find it so striking that it took the Lacks children almost all of their lives to finally learn about their mother’s tragic experience. It is terrible that no one bothered to tell them about what happened, and when they tried to investigate, people would either turn them away or take advantage of them. Why does it still have to be this hard for people of color? Our country has changed a lot over the years, but sometimes it has changed less than we think. The fact that it was so hard for the Lacks children to learn the truth about their mother’s medical history due to their race means that we still have huge race problems today.

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One thought on “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

  1. I think you make a really important point about the centrality of trust throughout this storyline. The Lacks’ trust was broken multiple times, as you spoke of, not only by the doctors but also by the lawyer. I was surprised that they opened up to Rebecca, even after all of the initial uncertainty she faced trying to get the family to agree to interviews. It makes sense that there is this sense of mistrust in the medical system passed down through generations, as there are stories and people’s experiences that back up the rationale behind this mistrust. I think one of the important questions medical professionals have to ask is how to regain that trust, as they cannot expect to just gain it back without any additional effort to change on their part.

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