Study Guide

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Suffering

By Rebecca Skloot

Suffering

Doctors examined her inside and out, pressing her stomach, inserting new catheters into her bladder, fingers into her vagina and anus, needles into her veins. (40)

Though we know from her medical records that Henrietta's first radium treatment went smoothly, Skloot's description of the sick woman's experience seems terrible. Skloot's matter-of-fact language in describing these procedures conveys how quickly a person who suffers from a disease can be turned into a medical subject, one that can be poked and prodded without much regard. Cancer treatment is still a pretty awful business, despite treatment advances since Henrietta's time.

Henrietta's cousins always said a bit of Henrietta died the day they sent Elsie away, that losing her was worse than anything else that happened to her. (45)

Henrietta's doctors and family had convinced her that she could no longer handle her older daughter's special needs on her own, but she was never comfortable with the decision. And considering that so many difficult things happened in Henrietta's life, it really means something when the cousins say this was the worst thing.

One afternoon, as Henrietta lay on the couch, she lifted her shirt to show Margaret and Sadie what the treatments had done to her. Sadie gasped: The skin from Henrietta's breasts to her pelvis was charred a deep black from the radiation. (48)

Though Henrietta was able to keep the initial stages of her illness under wraps, she eventually found the burden too much to bear. By showing her scarring to cousin Sadie, Henrietta gains a witness to her suffering and also shows how the treatment is often as hard as the disease itself. It's possible Henrietta was given too high a dose of radiation.

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." (66)

Just in case you didn't fully understand the extent of Henrietta's suffering, this says it all. Even the strongest narcotic pain medications used today can't touch the pain. These notes by her physician reflect not just Henrietta's level of pain—which is tremendous—but also the desperation of her doctors to find something that will work. Henrietta's autopsy shows her body totally invaded by tumors, which account for the excruciating pain.

"That there's a memory I'll take to my grave," [Emmett] told me years later. "When them pains hit, looked like her mind just said, Henrietta, you best leave. She was sick like I never seen." (85)

Cousin Emmett's recollection of Henrietta in the final stages of her illness makes death seem like a better option or her. Her severe pain was causing her to have seizures. Ironically, it's the aggressive nature of those cancer cells that make them thrive in the lab.

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. (112)

The loss of their mother affects the Lacks children in ways that the physicians at Hopkins could never have predicted. When Ethel takes over the household, she gets free rein to take her anger out on the kids. Without their mom there to protect them, this predator wreaks havoc on baby Joe, who would face a lifetime of anger, violence and homelessness as a result of Ethel's abuse.

Deborah cried the whole way home to Bobbette and Lawrence's house, blood dripping from her split eyebrow, then leapt from the car and ran through the house, straight into the closet where she hid when she was upset. (115)

Deborah finds her self in a gut-wrenching situation. Although she wants her cousin Galen to stop molesting her, she's afraid to tell her sister-in-law Bobbette about the abuse. She fears that Bobbette will kill Galen and wind up in jail, and she just can't bear that. The failure of Deborah's immediate family to protect her from Galen and other predators will leave her vulnerable to abuse and suffering for the rest of her life.

"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 cells [...]" (246-47).

Zakariyya (a.k.a. Joe) sums up the Lacks family's anger about HeLa cells: wealthy white people get to use their mother's cells for fame and profit—and to help other rich people—while Henrietta's family struggles for basic necessities. Zakariyya also points out something more subtle: other people "got good" from his mother, when he never even knew her. Learning about their mother's cells just reminds them of that loss.

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. (273)

The Crownsville picture of Elsie Lacks not only shows how terribly the young girl suffered at the hands of doctors and scientists, it also pretty much destroys her sister Deborah's peace of mind. After seeing the picture for the first time, Deborah gets sick, since she can't do anything to change what happened to Elsie. She never gets over it.

She'd been driving with both of Elsie's pictures on the passenger seat beside her, staring at them as she drove. "I can't get all these thoughts outta my head. I just keep thinkin about what she must've gone through in those years before she died." (278)

Deborah's anxiety and sadness for the sister she never knew gets worse every time she looks at her sister's picture. In the photo, there's clear evidence of physical abuse and neglect. We can imagine that the little girl lived a miserable life without her mother and family. Worse, we learn about the experiments conducted on the vulnerable patients at Crownsville. Elsie doesn't live very long there. Although finding out the truth about HeLa cells had been cathartic for Deborah, the truth about Elsie breaks her heart.

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