Part 1 ("Life") begins in Baltimore, Maryland, as a young black woman named Henrietta Lacks arrives at Johns Hopkins Hospital to have a "knot on her womb" examined.
Henrietta had been in pain since she'd given birth to her fourth child, Deborah. She assumed it had something to do with childbirth or maybe from a sexually transmitted disease brought to her by her husband, who slept around a lot.
She'd told her cousins Sadie and Margaret about the knot, but no one else. They told her it might be a pregnancy outside the uterus (ectopic pregnancy), but Henrietta knew it wasn't that.
When she started bleeding outside of her menstrual cycle, Henrietta did a self-examination while in the bathtub and found a lump on her cervix.
Which landed her in the local doc's office. But the doctor assumed that the sore on Henrietta's cervix was from syphilis, which she'd already been diagnosed with.
Her only other option was to head twenty miles out to Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Skloot reminds us that Hopkins was a charity hospital, and the only one within a great distance that would provide care to black patients during the Jim Crow era. Even so, it had a special "colored" ward.
Her doctor at Hopkins, Howard Jones, read her chart before examining her, and found that Henrietta suffered from many untreated conditions, including syphilis and gonorrhea.
We learn from her chart notes that Henrietta was one of 10 children and had a 6th or 7th grade education; that she had one daughter with epilepsy; and that she had discontinued her treatments for syphilis.
The mass on her cervix was unlike anything Howard Jones had ever seen. He took a biopsy of it and sent Henrietta home for the time being.
But the news couldn't be good. The mass on Henrietta's cervix hadn't been there three months before, at her last exam, and now it was the size of a nickel.