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.

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