Monday, February 7, 2011

What I Wish They'd Teach Me in Science

 Now, I have never in my joyful years of living even read the exposition of a nonfiction book-when I go shopping in the local bookstore, I dart right to the Fiction/Literature Section right along the side wall and ignore anything that lies in my path. I didn't possess the knowledge of where the Nonfiction sections were until very recently, very recently being about last September. It was then very much to my surprise when I found that I was extremely eager to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot's debut about the women whose cells launched a phenomenon in the world of science. So what did I do? I embarked on an endeavor to the local library to retrieve said book, an experience that additionally taught me where the Biography section was in the library (the last three weeks were saturated with education.) And do you know what?
     I'm loving it.
Here are the basics: Henrietta Lacks was an African American woman who hailed from Clover,a diminutive town in Southern Virginia where her ancestors once worked as slaves. She married her cousin, Day Lacks, and had given birth to a few children when she moved to Baltimore so that Day could work at a flourishing steel manufacturing plant called Sparrow's Point.  It was during the time that she was in Baltimore that Henrietta took her first trip to Johns Hopkins gynecology clinic to have the doctors investigate the pungent pain she had been feeling in her lower belly for more than a year. The "knot" inside of her, as she described it, turned out to be a malignant tumor growing on her cervix that possessed the potential to kill her. Now, at the time when this all occurred, there was a man named Dr. Richard Wesley TeLinde who was highly revered in the field of gynecology and was trying to make a huge impact on the way that cervical cancer was treated. So here's my attempt at an explanation of the exuberantly scientific-sounding theory that TeLinde was attempting to prove: Cervical cancer begins with the formation of a carcinoma, which grows on the cells that protect the surface of the cervix from potential threats. There are two types of carcinomas: ones that have gone through the outer wall of the cervix  and into  it (invasive carcinomas), and ones that have not (noninvasive carcinomas). Doctors at that time believed that it was a waste of time to treat noninvasive carcinomas because they thought they would not spread, while they treated invasive carcinomas vivaciously. What TeLinde wanted to do was to prove that doctors should in fact treat noninvasive carcinomas because he believed that they lead to the formation of invasive carcinomas. In order to prove this through experimentation, however, he needed cells that were extracted from and would continue to live and divide outside of a human body. Actually, many experiments that scientists of that day wanted to perform required the use of "immortal" cells, so to speak. For such specimens, TeLinde called on Dr. George Gey (and it's pronounced "Guy," for all you sixth-graders), who had been trying to find such immortal cells for some time. TeLinde began having the doctors at Johns Hopkins collect tissue samples from the cervixes of women who they treated, Henrietta being one of these women, to help Dr. Gey in his quest. Most cells died and many of people working in the Gey laboratory lost hope that these "immortal" cells would ever be found-until, of course, they saw the cells collected from Henrietta's cancer-riddled cervix. As long as they were given nutrition through a culture medium, Henrietta's cells continued to divide into a glorious infinity. Dr. Gey thought the phenomenon a miracle, and soon the cells-HeLa Cells, as they were named-began to be produced in factories around the country. One of these factories that was located an the Tuskegee institute began to ship HeLa cells to numerous scientists from all over the world for experimentation. Those cells were used for numerous advances in science throughout the years that would follow their creation, especially the revolutionary polio vaccine that saved millions of lives...Yes, everything was great and wonderful, except for one phenomenon: You see, while HeLa cells are living to this day and have existed throughout a great amount of history, the person who they were extracted from was not so fortunate.
       Henrietta Lacks perished on October 4, 1951, leaving all of her children, her husband, and her family without the woman who they all depended on so immensely. She spent her last days enveloped in excruciating pain because of the influx of tumors that began to grow all over her body as her closest cousins, Margaret and Sadie, watched in horror. To add to this heartbreak, there was another aspect of this saga that was very controversial-not one person ever asked Henrietta if they could take a culture cells. Not one nurse, doctor, or even secretary murmured an iota of knowledge except for Dr. Gey, who conducted  a short conversation with her that occurred near her death. 
   This practice demonstrates what I think is a very unfortunate habit among the human race-to use trickery in order to achieve our ambitions. Technically, the doctors at the time could use the argument that Henrietta did not say that they couldn't take a culture of her cells and use it for scientific research. However, despite its technical legality at the time, I think you could probably explain Henrietta's situation to any person in Baltimore and that person would reason that the action was not righteous in the least. A large part of my life  I have refrained from telling all you about until the present moment is my interest in instrumental music. I am not the kind of musician that spends three hours a day practicing , but I still am one who loves the art form dearly and even keeps a miniature version of his instrument on his nightstand so he can see it every night before he retires (and I know how psychotic that is.) Oh, how I digress...anyway, my teacher has recently been instructing me on how to play a solo for this year's county music competition. Throughout the experience, she's always telling me to insert crescendos (a marking that indicates that one should increase in volume) or decrescendos (a marking that indicates that one should decrease in volume) into places where they are not written in the piece. She either has one of two excuses for these actions: it's either because "You're  the artist," or "He [the composer] didn't say not to". I, of course being the diligent student (a.k.a. goody-goody-too-shoes) that I am, do not interrupt. In my head, though, I am think that if the composer did not write the marking, then obviously he did not want it inserted into that spot. This fact comes through common sense, right? He thought that the piece sounded perfect without the markings, so why not just leave the piece be since it was written by that man after all. But I just play the solo with all of these manufactured markings of contemporary times, hoping to get a perfect, impeccable score on my evaluation from a judge who doesn't fill out my scoring sheet in Hieroglyphics. Is that half of the problem-that we permit this deceitful manipulation to occur because it is not persecuted and ultimately aids us in achieving our ambitions? What if the composer was resurrected and saw what I was doing to his original piece? How would I feel? How would he feel? And even after writing this, do you know what's queer?
      I will walk into that evaluation room on the day of the competition and still manipulate that solo so it will benefit my flawed, philosophical self.


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