Black is Immortal: Celebrating the Life and Legacy of Henrietta Lacks

by Sharayah Lane

Blackness has been many things throughout our history, but as Black History Month begins, one event aims to remind us that Black is…immortal.

In a joint celebration of Black History Month and World Cancer Day the Cierra Sisters are hosting “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”, an event celebrating the incomparable contribution Henrietta Lacks made to the medical field as well as addressing the disproportionate impact of cancer in the Black community.

Groundbreaking medical advances in the study of HIV/AIDS, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, virtually every vaccine known to man, cloning, and many other medical milestones, are directly linked to the living cells of Ms. Henrietta Lacks, whose biological contribution has yet to be fully understood and can be seen as nothing short of miraculous.

In 1951 in Baltimore, MD Henrietta Lacks lie dying of cervical cancer at the segregated Johns Hopkins Hospital being told by nurses that she could only see her children through the window after determining that her family coming in would “only upset her too much”. Her husband brought her children outside her window every day, and at 31 years old Henrietta died alone in her hospital bed.

Just weeks earlier Henrietta had been diagnosed with cervical cancer and Dr. George Gey was reported saying that her cancer was so overgrown by the time she arrived at the hospital that it would have been near impossible to have missed when she had recently given birth. Dr. Gey took cell samples from Henrietta’s cancer and a modern medical miracle occurred. Scientists had never successfully been able to get human cells to live outside the body. Henrietta’s cells not only lived, but expanded and multiplied at a rapid rate.

No such thing had ever been witnessed before or since.

However, had Henrietta’s cells not lived outside of the body we would never have known her story, and her death would have been one of the many contributing to the disproportionate impact of Black women’s cancer fatalities.

The event’s organizer, Bridgette Richardson Hempstead knows firsthand the medical community’s failure to serve Black women diagnosed with cancer. In 1996 Bridgette’s spirit moved her to go get a mammogram, but when she got there her doctor tried to talk her out of it.

“My doctor told me that I didn’t need one. She gave me a laundry list of reasons and the last one was because I was an African American woman. She said that I didn’t need to worry about it at my age and to come back in 10 years,” said Hempstead, “But I was wondering if all the white women were getting them, why couldn’t I get one?”

Bridgette ignored the doctor’s assurance and got a mammogram. That day, she was diagnosed with breast cancer, but because it was detected early enough, she survived. Bridgette immediately thought about her friends and family and decided to raise awareness in her community.

“It was heavy on my mind and I was concerned about this idea of black women not getting mammograms. During breast cancer awareness month I didn’t see one image of anyone who looked like me in 1996,” she said, “I began calling everyone I knew and began sharing with them about breast cancer in Black women. I wasn’t trying to spread fear. I was trying to spread awareness because we have been miseducated.”

The disproportionate impact of cancer continues to afflict the Black community. According to the National Cancer Institute, breast cancer death among African American women was approximately 28 percent higher than white women in 1998. In 2004 it was found that in the US white women have the highest incidence rate for breast cancer, but Black women are more likely than any other race to die from the disease.

And yet 45 years after Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer, her cells reached Bridgette Richardson Hempstead. The HELA cell, which doctor’s named Henrietta’s cells, built the foundation for chemotherapy research.

In 1951, doctors found that not only did the HELA cells live outside the body, but they were able to be frozen and brought back to life. This created booms in the pharmaceutical, viral, makeup, and military industries changing and altering countless lives along the way. More than eleven thousand medical patents have been awarded because of the study of Henrietta’s cells.

Despite the numerous medical advances and the billions of dollars made off of cell discoveries, Henrietta’s family didn’t find out about the discovery and uses of her cells until over 20 years later when a Rolling Stone article published the true name of the HELA cell carrier. Doctors kept her name a secret at the time of her death and gave fake names to the press in 1951.  Her family has never been compensated for the use of Henrietta’s cells.

The event will seek to highlight Henrietta’s life and legacy, and will screen the HBO film “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” It will include panel presenters, dinner, door prizes, vendors and more.

Event Details:

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center

1:45pm – 6:00pm

Event registration can be found here. Email questions to cierrasisters@hotmail.com

(Note: Bridgette Richardson Hempstead currently sits on the South Seattle Emerald Board of Directors)


Sharayah LaneSharayah Lane is an active seeker of good stories and social justice in Seattle. She is a new mama who loves spending time with her son Ian and watching him discover the world.  She enjoys long naps, good books, and enjoying the beauty of the PNW.

 

 

 

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