In early June, Henrietta begins to tell her doctors that the cancer is spreading, but they assert that she is incorrect. The author explains the practice of “benevolent deception,” in which doctors would withhold information from their patients in order to keep from upsetting them. This idea was especially prevalent when dealing with black patients. Rebecca wonders if Henrietta’s treatment would have been different if she’d been white, citing studies that reveal how black patients were hospitalized later and less frequently than their white counterparts.
Skloot makes sure to contrast the increasing success and spread of HeLa with Henrietta’s physical decline. She also uses this moment to describe yet another way in which doctors of this time violated their patients’ rights: the practice of “benevolent deception.” Skloot makes sure to point out that this practice is also directly related to race, as white doctors would have thought of black patients as less able to understand or accept medical information.
Rebecca returns to Henrietta’s medical records, which show that she returned to Hopkins complaining of discomfort, but was told that she was fine. Two and a half weeks later, she is in so much pain that she can barely urinate or walk. A doctor inserts a catheter to relieve her bladder, but then sends her home. When she returns in three days, a doctor feels a hard mass in her abdomen; after X-raying her, he finds that the mass is blocking her urethra. He calls Howard Jones, who declares the tumor “inoperable.” In a week Henrietta has gone from healthy to doomed.
In this passage we learn how doctors’ arrogance and bias towards Henrietta may in fact have been fatal to her. Although doctors consider Henrietta’s cells to be of the highest importance, they can’t be bothered to take care of their suffering, dying patient—an inattention that is directly related to Henrietta’s race, class, and gender.
Up until now, only Sadie, Margaret, and Day know that Henrietta is sick. Now everyone knows, however, and neighbors can hear Henrietta’s cries of pain from a block away. When Day takes his wife back to Hopkins for X-rays the next week, doctors find tumors on her uterus, on both her kidneys, and on her urethra. The doctors conclude that the only way they can help her is to use radiation to “relieve her pain.” Day and Henrietta’s cousins believe that the medical professionals are still trying to save her.
It is a testament to Henrietta’s suffering that while she was previously so careful to hide her cancer, she is now completely unable to do so. This passage also introduces the pattern of the Lacks family being misinformed by doctors and researchers. It is easy to understand why the Lackses do not trust the medical establishment, considering how often its representatives have lied to and manipulated them.
As radiation continues to burn her skin and her pain becomes even worse, Henrietta arrives at Hopkins on August 8 and says that she wants to stay there. A nurse draws her blood and puts it in a vial marked “colored” in case Henrietta needs a transfusion later. On the orders of George Gey, a doctor takes more cells from her cervix. Her body is polluted with toxins that would usually be flushed out in urine, however, so the cells die almost immediately. Doctors try to give her a variety of painkillers, but nothing helps. Tumors appear all over her body, and her temperature shoots up to 105. Doctors stop radiation, and note repeatedly how miserable Henrietta is.
Even with their patient in such dire condition, it seems that the Hopkins doctors care as much (or more) about obtaining more cell samples from her as they do about caring for her. By now, Henrietta has reached the peak of her suffering—it is this physical ordeal that will haunt her daughter Deborah for the rest of her life.
“There is no record” that George Gey visited Henrietta in the hospital or talked to her about her cells. Yet one of Gey’s colleagues, a woman named Laure Aurelian, claims that Gey did visit Henrietta, and told her that her cells were going to “help save the lives of countless people.”
This passage is crucial: no one will ever know whether Henrietta was in fact aware of the massive impact she had on the world. This question, of Henrietta’s legacy and if she knew about it, will resonate throughout the narrative.