More than 'HeLa': Family of Henrietta Lacks to lead discussion on race, poverty, medical consent at Holocaust Museum Houston

Photo of Julie Garcia

Seventy years after the death of Henrietta Lacks, Victoria Baptiste continues to be amazed by the impact her great-grandmother has had on the world.

Pre-pandemic, the 39-year-old registered nurse regularly attended college campuses to share Lacks’ story with students — typically freshmen, who Baptiste said were coming to truly understand independence.

Lacks, a Black woman, wife and mother of five children, died at the age of 31 from cervical cancer, but that’s far from the end of her story. Before she died, doctors at The Johns Hopkins Hospital retrieved a sample of her cancer cells and sent them to a nearby tissue lab run by Dr. George Gey, a cancer and virus researcher, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. They never asked for her consent.

Today, her story is well-known. In 2010, Rebecca Skloot wrote “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” And in 2017, Oprah Winfrey starred in HBO’s film adaptation. Nationwide, classrooms study her story as part of their curriculum.

How to register

What: The Lacks Family of the "Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" virtual discussion hosted by Holocaust Museum Houston and the Houston Museum of Natural Science

When: 6 p.m. Feb. 23

Where: Online via Zoom

Cost: Free

Registration:store.hmns.org/Selection.aspx?

item=5250&sch=1266960

“(What happened to her) is relevant with what is going on right now in the world, so we can look back to see how we got here,” Baptiste said. “We can see how communities of color have such a distrust of medicine and science to this day. You don’t realize how far generationally those traumas go.”

Lacks’ cells were were nicknamed “HeLa” cells, from the first two letters of her first and last names. Unlike other cells that died quickly, “HeLa” cells doubled every 20 to 24 hours and never died. They’re still used now to study the effects of toxins, drugs, hormones and viruses on the growth of cancer cells, the university said.

But at the time the cells were taken, the family wasn’t told.

On Feb. 23, Holocaust Museum Houston and the Houston Museum of Natural Science will host a free, virtual moderated discussion with Baptiste and her cousin, David Lacks Jr.

Wendy Warren, education director at Holocaust Museum Houston, considers what happened to Lacks a human rights issue, which is why she invited the family to speak. The discussion will focus on science but also on how Black Americans were viewed and treated by doctors and scientists back then — and even now. Warren said it will center on poverty, class, race and issues of informed consent.

Because she was Black, Lacks didn’t have many places to seek medical care in the early 1950s.

“Now that hospital has a whole program on the legacy of Lacks and what they’re doing on informed consent,” Warren said. “Bringing this story to light has made positive changes in the world, and we want to do our part to reach a larger audience.”

During the discussion, Baptiste and Lacks Jr. will share what it meant for the family to discover Lacks’ cells were being used, decades after her death, in laboratories around the world.

“(It’s amazing) to see (students’) perspective from what they got from reading the book and how much fire they have inside of them to fix those injustices that they know still occur to this day,” Baptiste said.

Warren, a former Alief High School history teacher, feels a deep connection to the book and its impact. Warren chose the book for the entire 10th grade class to read one year. It is still being taught now that she’s left teaching.

“Her contribution is one of the most important legacies in science, and it’s still impacting us today. The issue of who owns your bodily tissues is still a question that is being discussed and examined,” Warren said. “Something that has always moved (me) is when her daughter Deborah said, ‘if my mom’s cells are so important, why can’t I afford health insurance?’”

Nicole Temple, vice president of education at HMNS, said the museum is grateful to help provide the lecture free to the community. She said it’s impossible to not feel a personal connection to Lacks because of the scientific breakthroughs her cells have made on Earth and in space.

In 1960, “HeLa” cells were first sent to space on a Soviet satellite. A year later, NASA sent them on the Discoverer XVIII satellite to study how zero gravity would affect human cells, according to the agency.

For Baptiste, Lacks is more than “HeLa,” and that’s why she works to dispel myths about what happened and educate people on the rights to their own bodies.

Working as a nurse at a nephrology clinic, Baptiste makes sure her patients know what is going on and that they always have a choice.

“It’s definitely a great experience to know that you come from a legacy that, even in her death, she’s saving lives every day; she was a catalyst for so many great things in science,” Baptiste said. “It shows me this is my purpose to share that legacy, make sure people are informed by her story and advocating for patients. I want to fill in the gaps she didn’t have.”

julie.garcia@chron.com

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