Henrietta Lacks was born in Roanoke, Virginia. Having to move from Roanoke to Clover when she was four years old, she met her cousin Day, and also her future husband. On January 29, 1951 Henrietta went to John Hopkins Hospital because she felt a "knot on her womb". Howard Jones was the gynecologist on duty at Hopkins, and when he examined her, he found a full-fledged tumor on her cervix.
Henrietta was diagnosed with cervical cancer, so she started getting radium treatment at Hopkins. The radium treatments often caused nausea, vomiting, weakness, and anemia, but no one ever remembered Henrietta complaining. She kept her cancer hidden for about a month and a half; after the first radium treatment the tumor was shrinking. However, she still had to start going to Hopkins ever weekday for a month - meaning she had to tell Margaret and Sadie she was sick. The therapy started to weigh on Henrietta, the walk to Margaret's was getting longer. When Henrietta showed Margaret her abdomen, the skin from her breast to her pelvis was charred a deep black.
Henrietta tried to tell her doctors she could feel the cancer spreading, but the doctors said there was no evidence of it. Two and half weeks later Henrietta's abdomen hurt, so a doctor passed a catheter to empty her bladder. But she was back three days later, when a doctor pressed on her abdomen he felt a "stony hard" mass. Turns out she had a tumor on her pelvic wall. In a week stone-hard tumors were all inside of her. One on her uterus, one on each kidney and on her urethra.
By September, Henrietta's body was almost taken over by tumors. They grown on her diaphragm, bladder, and lungs. They blocked her intestines and her stomach swelled. Her kidneys could no longer filter toxins from her blood. The cancer made Henrietta's body go rigid and she would convulse in pain. On October 4, 1951, Henrietta died at 12:15 a.m.
When Henrietta went in for her first radium treatment, Dr. Lawrence cut two dime-sized pieces of tissues from her cervix. One from her tumor and one from the healthy cervical tissue. The tissue samples were given to Dr. George Gey.
Gey's lab assistant Mary Kubicek was one of many who dealt with cell culture. Kubicek worked with the cells in an air tight cubical to prevent contamination of the cells. After sterilization, Kubicek puts the cells into culture medium and labeled them HeLa - the first two letters of the patients first and last names.
Normal cells would die outside of the body, even in culture medium. However, HeLa cells did not die when put into culture medium. Due to being cancerous, HeLa cells were able to divide and keep living from an original cell line.
The Tuskegee Institute opens the first HeLa Factory which supplies cells for laboratories and researches also operating as a nonprofit. Which will produce trillions of cells each week. In a few years, the company Microbiological Associates begins selling HeLa for profit.
HeLa cells then help to develop the polio vaccine, they also have been the first cloned cells. Chester Southam begins to conduct experiments to see if HeLa could cure cancer on patients without their consent. Henrietta's cell also helped in the study of leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, Parkinson’s disease, cancer, and in vitro fertilization.
In 1951 George Gey and his assistant Mary Kubicek discovered the first immortal cells - HeLa cells - and how to culture them. Before anything, Kubicek sterilized her station, after sterilization, she began to cut the cells into one-millimeter squares. She then sucked each square into a pipette and dropped them each onto chicken-blood clots at the bottom of dozens of test tubes covering them with several drops of culture medium. Lastly, she put the test tubes into Gey's wooden roller drum the constantly turned them cells. A few days later the cells began to grow, by the next morning they had doubled. They kept doubling and doubling, but Gey wasn't satisfied yet, saying they could die any minute - but they never did. George told his closet colleagues he thought he might have grown the first immortal human cells.
The Tuskegee Institute, that was mentioned earlier, opened the first HeLa Factory, which massed produced and shipped out HeLa cells for researchers. The Institute was built originally for one purpose, to find a cure for polio. In the same year, 1952, the vaccine for polio was discovered. Gey made it to where the cells could grow in suspension. Leading to HeLa being susceptible to poliovirus, which not all cells were.
In 1966, Stanley Gartler stood in front of more than seven hundred other scientist to tell them about a "technical problem" in their field. Gartler discovered a rare genetic marker, G6PD-A, in eighteen of the most commonly used cell cultures. This was present almost exclusively in black Americans. "It seems to me the simplest explanation," he told the audience. "is that they are all HeLa cell contaminants." HeLa could contaminant in a lot of ways: they could float on dust particles in the air, they could travel on unwashed hands or used pipettes. If one HeLa cell landed in a culture dish, it took over.
George Gey was fishing with a few other Hopkins researchers when he couldn't lift his pole. Ironically, Gey had pancreatic cancer. Around 6:00 a.m., on August 8, 1970, Margaret called the members of Gey's lab staff and told them there was a emergency procedure that morning. Gey wanted them to take samples of his tumors like Dr. Lawrence did with Henrietta. He gave them specific instructions for GeGe, telling them to work all day and night if the need be. The surgeons did not operate on Gey, so when he recovered from surgery, he went several places donating himself to pancreatic research. Gey died on November 8, 1970.
When Deborah and Skloot were leaving Crownsville with the information of Elsie, Lurz asked Deborah if she was oaky. Deborah responded with "Like I'm always telling my brothers, if you gonna go into history, you can't do it with a hate attitude. You got to remember, times was different." To me this was important to the book because if Deborah did not have this attitude, Skloot would have had a very, even more difficult time trying to get all the information she needed to write her book. Deborah was a big part in the adventure, and if she had listened to her brothers and refused, The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks would not be complete as it is with Deborah. Deborah says "You got to remember, times was different", and she was right, they were different. Crownsville hospital was horrible place during Elsie's stay. The cruel and unthinkable happened to patients there. When Deborah and Skloot went, things had change, but they could still feel the poor souls still trapped in those walls of Crownsville.
Deborah Lacks with HeLa cells