Friday, May 27, 2011

Plea for Henrietta Lacks


Johns Hopkins, arguably one of the most famous hospitals in the United States, acknowledged for its achievements in the world of medicine, has trouble giving out blue ribbons to the people who have contributed its success.

Take Vivian Thomas for example. Thomas began his service at Johns Hopkins in 1941. As a medical assistant to Dr. Alfred Blalock, he invented the procedure to cure “Blue Baby Syndrome” and invented surgical tools for cardiac surgery that are still used today. He also trained the majority of medical staff at Hopkins during his tenure which ended in 1985. However, after all his major contributions and over 40 years of service, he received a meager Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree after Blalock had taken the credit for all of his work.

Nevertheless, Vivian Thomas wasn’t the only person overlooked in Johns Hopkins’ history of mystery. Henrietta Lacks is.

Lacks, was a black woman who lived in the community of Turner Station in Baltimore. In 1951, she sought treatment at Hopkins, because “she had a worrisome symptom: spotting on hear underwear” City Paper columnist Van Smith writes in his article “Wonder Woman”. “She was quickly diagnosed with cervical cancer. Eight months later, despite surgery and radiation treatment, she died in the hospital’s segregated ward for blacks.”

During her time at Hopkins, the doctor’s took fragments of Lack’s tumor, cut them into little pieces, bathed them in nutrients and placed the fragments in an incubator.

Smith says that, “the cells multiplied like no other cells outside the human body had before, doubling daily. The head of Hopkins’ tissue culture, Dr. George Gey, went before TV cameras, held up a tube of the cells and announced that a new age of medical research had begun.”

Apparently, cells usually don’t stay alive long enough outside the human body for researchers to experiment and test them, leaving the possibility of gaining any significant data out of the question. Not Henrietta Lacks’ cells. After it was confirmed that the cells could survive any testing or manipulation outside the host, they were named “HeLa.” Dr. Gey sent these cells to more physicians within the United States. Eventually, their demand became almost as high as crude oil is today.

“They were sent all around the world and in even into space” Smith writes. “They were used on an unmanned satellite to determine whether human tissues could survive zero gravity. In the biomedical world, “HeLa” cells are as famous as lab rats and petri dishes.”

In fact, her cells have been used in extensive research in the ongoing search for the cure for AIDS, cancer, gene mapping and countless other scientific pursuits including finding the polio vaccination.

One would have to be stone hearted to not be amazed at this miracle, but the fact that it’s not common knowledge that these scientific advances were made because of Ms. Henrietta’s cells is a crime! Ok, there was a “Henrietta Lacks Day” created in her community of Turner’s Station and at Morehouse College. There was also a documentary created telling her amazing story.

Even so, these Hallmark cards pale in comparison to how mankind has benefited from her contribution! Not a third of Baltimore City has even heard the name Henrietta Lacks before! Lacks’ body is buried in her hometown of Roanoke, Virginia and neither her family members who live in Baltimore or Virginia can identify her resting place, because she has an unmarked grave!

Something has to be done. Hopkins at minimum should give her a respectable tombstone after they identify which one is hers. Hopkins should create a statue in her likeness and place it in or around hospital. Finally, she should be recognized around the world as a humanitarian.

I’ve heard recently that Oprah is picking up Lacks’ story. What I do know is that, if Oprah picks it up, the world will too. Then, she will get the recognition she deserves and her name won’t be on history’s back burner waiting for a boiling pot.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Race in "True Blood"


Imagine that Vampire Bill Compton, everyone’s second favorite leading character, in HBO’s “True Blood”, has brown skin. Imagine that he has brown eyes and kinky hair. Now, imagine that all the vampires in the show have brown skin and kinky hair. The other characters can be left as is. These two quick paint jobs turn the world of “True Blood” entirely upside down. You, as a viewer, may feel quite different about the show.

From the start, the audience knows that the show’s main character, Sookie Stackhouse, is the object of affection of all the men, human or supernatural. She’s also object of envy of all the women who seek to be the center of attention in True Blood’s setting of Bon Temps Louisiana. Well, Sookie’s white, skinny, na├»ve, ultra sexy, innocent. She’s pretty much everything America has admired since Columbus. She just happens to be a telepath. Her blood gives vampires a first time ecstasy high when they drink it. Now, how does the “ol black and white” argument have relevancy in an alternate universe that consists of vampires, werewolves, fairies, telepaths, maenads, and shape shifters? I will tell you.

Initially, in the first episode of True Blood, Sookie, working as a waitress at Merlottes, is mysteriously drawn to the vampire, Bill Compton. This attraction is odd, because the majority of the humans in the show hate the vampires. They’re “cannibals, criminals, damned, dangerous, and just downright evil.” When Mr. Compton enters Merlotte’s, no waitress serves him; everyone stares at him as if he has the plague. Sookie is the only one opened minded enough to speak to him. She is enticed with the idea of talking to and associating with a vampire. Sookie sees them as misunderstood, but their appeal to her is that they are exotic, sexual beings and bad asses. I’m sweating from “Jungle Fever.” As Bill and Sookies’ relationship gets deeper, the entire town resents her for dating a vampire. Even Lafayette, the gay black male cook at Merlottes’, who in his spare time, runs a porn website and sells drugs, is rarely ridiculed for his sexual orientation. His “lifestyle” takes a total backseat to the humans’ hate for the vampires. This is amazingly ironic, because some of the gay people, who have been pushing for gay marriage rights, call gay “the new black.”

What’s increasingly disturbing about this show is how close it resembles the Jim Crow South. Keep in mind, for this exercise that, our vampires are black! As stated, all the vampires are sexually obsessed with Sookie. Sex, in this case, is the lowest, as well as the most animalistic of all human contact. This draws a parallel to Richard Wright’s “Native Son.” “In Native Son”, the protagonist, Bigger, is forced to rape Mary Dalton, a white woman, because she was the embodiment of the American Dream that he, as a black man, could never have. As we know, sex is temporary not permanent. Even Bill, who is Sookie’s soul mate, can never truly have her. His dangerous lifestyle as her protector and his overall animalistic nature as a vampire, consistently destroys their relationship. No matter how good his intentions are for Sookie, he’s doomed for failure as some new creature always wants to use her as a sex slave and or blood bank. Each season, he’s either blackmailed, beat up, or kidnapped. Thus, rendering him powerless to protect the woman he loves. Sound familiar?

What’s even more disturbing is that, the progressive vampires, such as Bill, just want to be considered as equals. They want to be able to go into restaurants and not be scowled be at. They want to be able to have contact with the humans without having to say “Please don’t run; I won’t kill you.” Not scary enough? There’s a radical church called “Fellowship of the Sun” in the “True Blood” series that takes a radical Christian stance using the Bible to justify their violent acts towards vampires. They even go so far as to training “Warriors for God” at a camp that teaches their congregation how to kill vampires. In fact, one of the storylines is a constant debate between the progressive leaders of the vampires and the pastor of the “Fellowship of the Sun” church in an alternate universe Fox News like channel format.

Moreover, the oldest and most powerful vampire, Godric, comes into play in the second season. He exhibits all the mannerisms of say Martin Luther King or Ghandi. In fact, when one of the “warriors for God” comes to assassinate him, Godric disarms the man then tells him to go home. Hmmmmmm..

Imagine how you would feel if we went back stage again only to take the fangs away from the vamps in “True Blood” while leaving their brown skin. Imagine if the “Fellowship of the Sun” wore white hoods. Imagine if the progressive vampires had a march on Washington followed by the passing of a Vampire Rights Act. Imagine how your opinion of “True Blood” would change. Reality check.