Many do not identify the name but have reaped the benefits of her existence. The eternal life of Henrietta Lacks, a true American hero.
Lacks was a colored female tobacco farmer whose cancerous cells became the origin of the HeLa cell line, the first human-grown immortal cells essential to the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping, In Vitro fertilization and countless other scientific phenomena. Her cells were bought and sold by the billions, but her name was still unknown.
Lacks was treated in the colored ward of The John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and received standard treatment. Without her knowledge or consent, the doctor retrieved a sample of her tumor for research, which was not uncommon. As HeLa advanced, Lacks died a few short months later from cervical cancer.
This history did not begin with Lacks, though. A 19th century-physician by the name James Marion Sims, the pioneer in the development of surgical techniques related to the female reproductive system, earned the title, “Father of Modern Gynecology.” He was known for performing his experiments on enslaved black women without any anesthesia, according to History.com. Sims discovered the forerunner to the speculum while exploring the advantages he found working on people that were, essentially, his property.
These unknown moments in history affect how black women are treated medically today, especially during childbirth. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Black mothers in the U.S. die at three to four times the rate of white mothers, one of the widest of all racial disparities in women’s health.”
A black woman is 22 percent more likely to die from heart disease than a white woman and 71 percent more likely to die from cervical cancer, but the most alarming statistic is that black women are 243 percent more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes, according to NPR. Income, environment and education hold significance due to lack of access but education and income offer little, if any, protection. According to The Brookings Institution, “A black woman with an advanced degree is more likely to lose her baby than a white woman with less than an eighth grade education.”
Professional and affluent athlete, Serena Williams, told Vogue about her medical ordeal when pregnant with her daughter, Olympia. Williams endured a pulmonary embolism, the sudden blockage of an artery in the lungs due to a blood clot, and recalled that medical personnel initially ignored her concerns. Due to the pulmonary embolism, her C-section wound ruptured which required more surgery. Williams spent the first six weeks of her child’s life bedridden.
Shamekia Hansford, wife and mother of three, spoke about her experience as a black woman and her relationships with doctors.
“I had a gynecologist, he was the one that delivered [my youngest daughter] and I did not want him to because he did not treat me well. He was not very sympathetic to anything I was saying,” said Hansford.
Hansford recalled hesitation to see a doctor due to her “duties” as a mother and wife.
“If I did not have a family to focus on, I would focus more on myself. I have to make sure things get done,” said Hansford. “The black woman is probably the last one to be taken care of.”
Angel Frink, mother of five, was in her kitchen preparing dinner. She spoke immensely about doubt.
“[Black women] have this mentality ‘Oh, it’s nothing, it’s nothing’ and do not get it checked out because you feel like you have so much stuff on your plate,” said Frink.
“I literally almost died on the table having [my oldest daughter]. She was the fourth C-section. I started bleeding out. They gave me three IVs and five units of blood. They could not put me in the maternity ward because they were afraid I would have to go back into surgery,” said Frink.
Frink recalled discrimination from certain doctors because of her fairly young age and absence of marital status.
“You definitely need to advocate for yourself too, because they see a young, black and single mother and they think ‘Oh, here’s another statistic.’ We want to put our guard down too, knowing my doctor is going to take good care of me,” said Frink.
She emphasized awareness and how important it is to start a dialogue with your children. “Black women need to listen and pay attention to their bodies,” said Frink.
Rider Administrative Associate, Juanita Carroll, did not find the high percentage of maternity deaths surprising given her experience within the healthcare system.
“When I worked in Houston at MD Anderson Cancer Center, the Spanish-speaking women and the black women seem to have less access to healthcare and if they did have access to clinics, those kinds of tests just were not done,” said Carroll. “I think you have to inform any doctor that you are educated, so when you feel as though they are talking down to you, you have to stop them and let them know who you are and what you know.”
Morally, when you go to the doctor, you are trusting them. It does not matter whether you are pregnant or going in for a simple check up, you hope they are telling you the truth. I want women like me to be allowed to speak in their truth, because this is what is happening. My purpose is to illuminate our stories to save a life.
Sophomore journalism major