The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Fire-Engine Red

 

“The stories of women who have given gifts to all of us 
without regard to gender, race or skin color need to matter.
 They are meant to be shared, cherished, and honored.”
-R. Delane

Fire-engine red nail polish… the link that connects both my Grandma Julie who lived to be almost 100 years old and Henrietta Lacks, a poor tobacco farmer who worked the fields where her ancestors were slaves.

Henrietta was the married mother of five children who died at the age of thirty-one from cervical cancer at John Hopkins in 1951… leaving behind her cells – taken without her knowledge prior to her death.

My earliest memories of my grandmother are of her loving face, her warm hugs and trademark red nail polish. She was, starting early in my childhood, a role model of how to live life with both gratitude and passion while wearing red nail polish, of course.

The last conversation we had weeks before she passed peacefully in her sleep is forever etched in my memory;

She was sharing her thoughts about her life in a nursing home. Asking her what she liked best about living there, she replied without any hesitation – “having my nails painted fire-engine red.”

Henrietta Lacks cells were the basis for developing the polio vaccine I was given as a child and my own and my daughter’s chemotherapy treatments for advanced breast cancers.

I learned the just 3 years ago when I attended an Ohio State University First Year program featuring Rebecca Skloots, the award-wining science/medical journalist, who devoted ten years of her life to uncovering the life story of Henrietta.

Skloots shared it with the world in her internationally acclaimed book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The #1 best seller has been translated into more then 25 languages. The bonus was that David Lacks, Henrietta’s son was also part of the program.

Halfway through the program, I knew I had to find a way to meet both of them to offer my profound gratitude. Intense curiosity plus persistence again got me the interview and photos!

The red nail polish I found out later was Henrietta’s ‘must have’ adornment. She always kept her nails painted as a young woman until she was to ill at Johns Hopkins to continue her ritual.

During her autopsy, a young lab assistant holding the petri dishes, who had never been in a morgue and later recounted that almost passed out when trying to avoid looking at the face, when she glanced down at the feet and gasped; Henrietta’s toenails were covered in chipped bright red polish.

Suddenly, this body whose cells were already being grown and shared in research labs became a “real woman”.

When her family received Henrietta’s body, cousins Gladys and Sadie were waiting with makeup, curlers and, of course, red nail polish to prepare her for viewing.

So, both my grandmother, Julie and Henrietta left their earthly bonds wearing bright red polish.

Red – the symbolic color of passion, love and purpose.

The stories of women who have given such gifts to all of us without regard to gender, race or skin color need to matter. They are meant to be shared, cherished, and honored.

TIP: Surprise a friend with a copy of the book or donate one to a school. And… think of Henrietta when you see red nail polish, my friend!

Be good to yourself,

René