Study Guide

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Chapter 1 Summary

By Rebecca Skloot

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Chapter 1

The Exam (1951)

  • 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.

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