Tuesday, February 5, 2013

When science lacks spirit

[Recording located at end of post]
The story of Henrietta Lacks, an effervescent African-American woman living in poverty, dying in poverty and being treated by the medical community as a non-entity, is one of the most interesting and inspiring I've ever encountered.

When you read between the lines for what's not articulated on the page of the bestseller The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, you honestly gain a glimpse of something larger than yourself. This is a liminal space where the veil thins, proving that two wrongs can make a right, a VERY big right, when Spirit is involved.

"For Deborah and her family – and surely many others in the world – that answer was so much more concrete than the explanation offered by science: that the immortality of Henrietta's cells had something to do with her telomeres and how HPV interacted with her DNA. The idea that God chose Henrietta as an angel who would be reformed with immortal cells made a lot more sense to them than the explanation Deborah had read years earlier in Victor McKusick's genetics book, with it's clinical talk of HeLa's 'atypical histology' and 'unusual malignant behavior.'"

Henrietta, the mother of five and wife of a cousin, escaped her poor, Virginia slave roots to die in Baltimore from a complication of cervical cancer and sexually transmitted diseases passed on by her husband. She was a woman of substance, who, sadly and reluctantly, admitted her mentally challenged first-born to a local institution and left her life behind to follow her husband's work. Motherless at an early age herself, Henrietta was much beloved in the community for her care, concern and positive attitude.

Misdiagnosed, though it made no difference in the outcome, charred from radiation fighting aggressive tumors, Henrietta was robbed yet again: Johns Hopkins docs took cancer cells without her consent because they could and because she was black, uneducated and asked few questions of physicians. Aggressively multiplying in her body, the cells thrived and miraculously survived the lab environment. They were shipped everywhere, grown, cloned and used to develop vaccines for polio, aids and various cancers, even HPV (human papillomavirus), with which my daughters have been inoculated. I had no idea I shared a personal connection with her. Hairs stood up on my neck when I read that in our last book-club selection.

The seemingly unremarkable woman who died before I was born may save the lives of my daughters. May I say that again? Henrietta Lacks has helped potentially keep my girls from getting the disease that destroyed her. All without her permission, but, by now, I hope her blessing from beyond.

Her growing cells are enough to wrap around the earth three times. I've been so enamored of the story, I've mentioned it to complete strangers like the mammogram technician and young bookstore clerk. They'd both heard of Henrietta's cells, known as He-La.

Part of the story revolved around the burdensome legacy left to Henrietta's family. They know their mother is famous for her cells, but not really what that means. Industries have grown up around her cells and corporations have profited, while her grown children could not afford health insurance. They understand destitution.

When her youngest daughter, now deceased, accompanies the author in unraveling the mystery, she immediately grasps, in her simplicity and faith, what the real story is: God has given her mother immortality by letting the stolen deadly cells become the basis of so many cures, preventing the deaths of countless people across the globe.

Who else would choose a very poor, black woman in the 1950s as an example of grace? Only Spirit.

• What can I learn from Henrietta Lacks?
• What similar examples, perhaps on a small scale, do I have in my own life?
• What are those lessons?
• How do I interpret immortality?
• How have I witnessed Spirit making a right out of wrongs?

so unworthy,
her permission
meant nothing

they helped
to her tissue

sent it across
the globe,
taking all
of the credit

was attached

and Divinity
was truly
at work

Listen to this post:


  1. I love the way Spirit works. Its like sending your greatest gift to the world in the form of a baby born in a manger!

    "God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important." I Corinthians

  2. Beautiful thought and verse .. thank you!