The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: Calamity Transformed Into God Ordained Destiny

By Serenity Beaumont, Spiritual Life Division Head

 I will fulfill my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people.

-Psalm 116:14
Image found here.

In 1951, a young black mother of five named Henrietta Lacks arrived at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, one of few hospitals that treated African-Americans, with a large malignant tumor that, upon examination, was diagnosed as cervical cancer. As medical records show, Mrs. Lacks received radium treatments for this diagnosis, the best medical treatment available at the time for this disease. However, during her treatment, a sample of her cancer cells was retrieved during a biopsy. These cells were sent to Dr. George Gey who for many years had been collecting sample cells from patients who arrived at The Johns Hopkins Hospital with cervical cancer, but each cell sample he obtained quickly died as they were outside a living human body. What he would soon discover with Mrs. Lacks’s cells was their reproduction as they doubled every 20 to 24 hours rather than dying as other cells would. 

As a result, Mrs. Lacks’s cells became the century’s largest scientific discovery, however, her cells were taken without her or her family’s consent. In fact, her family did not know that medical institutions were profiting off her cells until 50 years later. None of these profits went to the family, and Mrs. Lacks passed away in the hospital at the very young age of 31. 

Although Mrs. Lacks opened the doorway to the first immortalized cell line, one of the most important cell lines in medical research, she was implicitly taken advantage of as a black woman so that these cells could be obtained. It appears as if God wasted the life of Mrs. Lacks; she essentially became a science experiment and the muse of many medical professional’s research rather than being able to happily experience life with her family. With an incomplete overview of her life, it is easy to establish her story as a tragedy. 

Despite the unfair treatment she experienced and her untimely passing, from a different perspective, God turned her life, which seems like a mess, into a message. Although treated as such, Mrs. Lacks’s life was not worthless. During her time on Earth, she significantly blessed her family, and even in her death, she continues to touch the lives of individuals all across the world.  Her mess has been and still is today being turned into a beautiful message as her cells, HeLa cells, are used to study the effects of toxins, drugs, hormones, and viruses on the growth of cancer cells without experimenting on humans. 

 Similar to an initial observation of Ms. Lacks’s story, momentarily our own circumstances may also seem like disasters, thus making us appear to others and ourselves that we must have no value. The enemy uses these burdens to cause confusion and disorder in our lives, always seeking to make us feel at fault. Daily, he torments us with recurring emotions of shame, guilt, condemnation while reminding especially Christians that the things we have done restrict us from deserving of God’s love and grace. The past can often make us feel as if we are exceptions to God’s grace, benevolence, and miracles. 

Littered throughout history, as seen with Mrs. Lacks and throughout the Bible, are stories of drastic messes and circumstances associated with murderers, adulterers, liars, thieves, cheaters, prostitutes, often examples that reflect the same chaos of our own lives. Notably, It was with these individuals that God is written not to have held back his grace, but rather extended it willingly. These people were not only forgiven, but their lives were drastically transformed as God used them for amazing purposes. Furthermore, their lives are used to exhibit the glory of God.  

It is worth wondering why these types of examples are written in Scripture for us to reflect on many years later. God shares with us the depth of these sins and circumstances, so we can understand that there is nothing, no mess too great, that He cannot transform into good. 

God certainly still had a plan and purpose for Mrs. Lacks’s life and her influence although it was cut short. God valued her and had a purpose for her life of which beautifully unfolded in its own time. For some, our messes later become messages God wants us to use for someone else walking through a similar situation, just like Mrs. Lacks’s story although she was not alive to tell it.

Ultimately, God has promised us as His creation that we matter and that we are valuable to Him as he “delights in His people” (Psalm 149:4, New International Version). Although we may be tossed, pulled, and tugged by the complications and temptations of life and sin, God is able to transform any situation into His vision and plan. 

Note: Author Rebecca Skloot was the first individual to search into Ms. Henrietta Lacks’s past so that her story, along with Mrs. Lack’s family, could receive recognition. The information above is from Skloot’s book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks