Henrietta and Me

Irina Echarry

Henrietta Lacks
Henrietta Lacks

HAVANA TIMES —These days, I’ve noticed I don’t manage to do anything right and that I find it hard to finish what I start (sometimes due to lack of time, other times for lack of concentration).

The fact of the matter is that, at this point in my life, I don’t believe I’ll be leaving behind any great work and, after a number of medical examinations everything seems to indicate I won’t even be able to bequeath descendants to humanity.

I would have liked to have contributed something significant to the world, something small but important. Thinking about this, I came upon the first of August, the day in which Henrietta Lacks was born. She had the worst three defects someone could have in 1950s Virginia: she was black, female and poor (and, to top things off, she had cancer).

At the time, there were no laws in the United States that guaranteed equality in healthcare. White women could be admitted into any hospital, while African Americans had to sweat it.

While Kurosawa was releasing Rashomon and Salinger was publishing The Catcher in the Rye, this woman, burdened with the care of five children, suffered the hemorrhages and pain of an aggressive cervical cancer that, in addition to killing her, made her famous.

I am interested, not in being popular or celebrated, but in helping others. Unwittingly, Henrietta became the leading figure in a scientific revolution – unwittingly because no one asked her if she consented to the procedure, in which she was denied the right to decide about her own body.

A doctor decided to examine and reproduce the cells he extracted from her malign tumor. The cells turned out to be rather singular. This study led to the creation of the first immortalized cell line, one which continues to reproduce today, 60 years after Henrietta’s death. The HeLa cells (the name is composed of the first two letters of Henrietta’s first and last name) have served as a research model. Thanks to them, much progress has been made in the study of cancer and many other illnesses, such as polio. It has allowed for the creation of in vitro fertilization techniques and facilitated the first steps towards human cloning.

It all sounds very useful and beneficial, but…I wonder how desirable it is to go down in history for something as negative as cancer. Reading about Henrietta’s life breaks my heart: suffering, mistreatment, discrimination, illness, death at the young age of 31…then, being remembered for the aggressiveness of a cancer whose cells are now scattered around the world. Everything was done without her consent, and not one of her five children got one cent of the profits made by the pharmaceutical industry 20 years later, when they found out a part of their mother was contributing to medical science.

For years, I was subjected to a treatment for fibromas. Before the start of the treatment, I signed a contract in which I agreed, among other things, that I had to undergo a biopsy to determine the state of my uterus (first every six months and then once a year). To date, I haven’t had any serious issues – there have been no alerts or confusing results, everything seems to be going well.

I hope that, if I do get ill, Cuban researchers will ask for my authorization to use my cells for research. I don’t know whether they will be as tenacious as the HeLa cells. I only wish that, if they can reproduce indefinitely, they are used to create humble beings who bring peace, interested in the search of knowledge, beings who take care of the environment, with whom a truly happy world can be built.

I have no interest in profit or recognition. I would actually prefer to remain anonymous. But, since we’re talking about my cells, I would also like these to be used to create another I, with the same qualities I mentioned above. Perhaps that other Irina will be able to concentrate better than I can, will be more organized and, what’s more, manage to have the children I can’t.