Racism in the Story of the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I believe that Henrietta was affected by structural inequalities. This is because, during that time, there was segregation between Whites and Blacks. They were treated differently in a way that the Blacks were at disadvantage. This can clearly be seen in “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” page 64 where the author, Rebecca Skloot, mentioned that the black patients were treated differently from the whites. Although Henrietta’s doctor, Howard Jones, denied the fact that she was treated differently, but from the book, I believe that there were unequal treatments to Henrietta.

As reported by Skloot, Henrietta came to her doctor a few times complained about the pain she felt, but the doctors kept turning her away saying that there was nothing wrong with her.

I personally believe that as responsible healthcare professionals, they need to help the patients in any way that they can as how they pledge to do it in the “Hippocratic Oath” (Chaney, 2018). If, at any circumstances, they are unable to diagnose the patients accurately, they should refer the patients to other doctors that are more competent in doing so.

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A doctor is being unethical if he/she treated the patients differently based on their skin colour, religion, sexual orientation for example. Although the doctors did not show explicitly that they had treated Henrietta differently, misdiagnosing a patient and not taking responsibility out of it is considered a “crime” in contemporary medical field and they should not did that to Henrietta. The structural inequality faced by Henrietta had led her to health disparities.

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Cancer that she had grown multiple sizes bigger in just a few weeks. Although it was not possible to cure the cancer completely, at least she could have lived longer if only she had been diagnosed earlier with cervical cancer by her doctors.

In order to address the factors that affect human’s health, the World Health Organization (WHO), highlighted a few social determinants of health. The first key category of social determinant is social status. In the book written by Rebecca Skloot, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”, it was mentioned that Henrietta lived with her grandfather Tommy Lacks, in a poor condition. From the book, Skloot describes the house Henrietta lived with his grandfather as “a four room log cabin that once served as slave quarters, with plank floors,…wind whipped through cracks in the walls.” The description portrays that Henrietta lived in poverty and could not afford a proper house to shelter her during the hot and cold weather. At a very young age, Henrietta had lived in an impoverished condition that affected her growth and health as a child.

It is evidenced in her chart which it mentioned that she had “breathing difficulty due to recurrent throat infections and deviated septum” in her nose. We know that it is essential for humans, especially growing children and elderly people to live in a comfortable and clean environment. This is because children and elderly people are the two categories of age that could contract diseases easily. They have a relatively low immunity as compared to other age groups (Simon, Hollander, & McMichael, 2015). In Henrietta’s case, her social status is intertwined with another social determinant which is housing. As they were in a poverty-stricken condition, they did not afford to live in a comfortable house.

Education plays a major role in determining one’s health. The people who are well-educated are more likely to experience better healthcare than the ones who are less educated. This statement is supported by Emily Zimmerman and Steven H. Woolf in their discussion paper entitled ‘Understanding the Relationship Between Education and Health”. It is mentioned in this paper on how our educational background can shape our cognitive and noncognitive skills. Simply said, we are able to weigh the good or bad of the decisions that we make for our health with a good education. Education can make us realize how important it is to care for our health. However, the point here is not to imply that a less educated person do not care about their health, but by being a more educated person, we can understand the real purpose of getting a certain treatment which eventually develops trust on our healthcare provider. Just like in Henrietta’s case, she did not feel the need to go for checkups but only went to Hopkins just because she had to. The education level that she had (sixth or seventh grade) made it hard for her to comprehend the unfamiliar jargon used by the doctors and that she felt like “she is in a foreign country” (Skloot, 2010). In addition, Henrietta and the people during that time, generally, do not have the knowledge in preventive measures that needed to be taken in order to take care of their health. In the book, Skloot mentioned that Henrietta thought the pain was from the sexually transmitted disease (STD) that was caused by her husband’s unsafe sexual activities. It shows that David did not have the awareness of having safe sex to prevent any STDs. His lack of comprehension in this aspect had affected Henrietta’s health and eventually affected their daughter, Elsie, with epilepsy. Henrietta’s biography is a great example in illustrating how important it is to have good education in taking care of our health.

The next key category in social determinants is social support. Social support can be given in various forms such as giving material or psychological resources to someone (Cherry, 2018). Upon reading this story, I could not deny the fact how lucky Henrietta was to have the strongest social support in her life which was her family. Her cousins, especially Sadie and Margaret, were the ones who helped her to get through the radiation treatment by giving her the emotional support that she needed. It is mentioned in Chapter 5 of the book where “Sadie and Margaret spent their evenings in Henrietta’s living room” having fun together. Towards the end of Henrietta’s life, it was mentioned that Emmet Lacks, his brother and a few of his friends even donated their blood to Henrietta to repay her kindness to them (Skloot, 2010). I admire how she was able to be so positive even though she was sick. I know that people who are sick can be very vulnerable emotionally as they can get stressed or depressed easily, but this did not happen to her.

Next, access to healthcare services is crucial in determining one’s health. For Henrietta, access to healthcare during her time was limited. This was due to the racial segregation law that was practiced during the Jim Crow Era. Due to the discrimination, some hospitals denied treatment to the Blacks even they were on the verge of dying. The only choice Henrietta had that time was Johns Hopkins. This hospital had separated sections for the Whites and “coloured patients”, but they still accepted them (Skloot, 2010). This lack of accessibility had caused the people who live in rural areas, which are mostly poor people (not all), to face challenges in terms money, time and transportation (Trying to understand and close the rural health care gap, 2017). Hence, due to their inability to cope with the hardships, they end up not going to the hospitals to get treatment. This not only put that individual’s life at risk, but also can affect the people around him/her if the disease is infectious.

In conclusion, I believe Henrietta was a victim of structural inequality and health disparity. In addition, there are a few social determinants that are found in her story which had contributed to her health. As new diseases emerge every day, we need to become a functional unit in society to help improve our healthcare system and to combat diseases in the community.


  1. Chaney, P. (2018). Modern Hippocratic Oath holds the underlying values of medicine in a digital world. Retrieved from David Geffen School of Medicine UCLA: https://medschool.ucla.edu/body.cfm?id=1158&action=detail&ref=1056
  2. Cherry, K. (2018). How Social Support Contributes to Psychological Health. Retrieved from Very Well Mind: https://www.verywellmind.com/social-support-for-psychological-health-4119970
  3. Simon, A. K., Hollander, G. A., & McMichael, A. (2015). Evolution of the immune system in humans from infancy to old age. Retrieved from National Center for Biotechnology Information: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4707740/
  4. Skloot, R. (2010). The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Broadway Books.
  5. Trying to understand and close the rural health care gap. (2017). Retrieved from Healio: https://www.healio.com/family-medicine/practice-management/news/online/%7B9adbc230-e87b-4a49-8516-fd9811b7b780%7D/trying-to-understand-and-close-the-rural-health-care-gap
  6. Zimmerman, E., & Woolf, S. H. (2014). Understanding the Relationship Between Education and Health. Retrieved from Institute of Medicine of the National Academies: https://nam.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/BPH-UnderstandingTheRelationship1.pdf
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Racism in the Story of the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. (2021, Dec 21). Retrieved from http://studymoose.com/racism-in-the-story-of-the-immortal-life-of-henrietta-lacks-essay

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