The Knot: A Tribute to Henrietta Lacks

by Maya C. James

Henrietta Lacks (born Loretta Pleasant on August 1st, 1920) was a woman.

When she felt the first twinge of pain in her abdomen, Henrietta thought it was a baby. A fragile gift that would change her life, just like her other five children had. As she prepared her small home for another child, the pain worsened with each passing day.

“It’s like a knot”, she would try to explain to her family, as the pain moved beyond her womb.

She felt like she birthed twins instead of a single child, and the pain was the greediest of the two. It grew a mouth before anything else, a greedy orifice that consumed in excess. It was never enough to take her energy, or space in her body, the knot had to have her life and her joy too.

“Look how I grew, Henrietta,” it whispered to her.

Henrietta Lacks farmed tobacco for a living.
When her eyelids drooped and her hands shook to pick the tobacco, the knot talked even louder. It tugged at her plain skirt, at her old work boots that looked oversized on her small, jittering body. It was always smiling and always eager to grow. It wanted to expand past its natural boundaries, and had to take bits and pieces of Henrietta’s health to do so. As she picked the tobacco and strained muscles to the point of unending soreness, the knot tugged on her skirt again.

“I can be strong even when you are not.”

The knot grew taller, stretching, yawning like a lion on a rock. It swiped at her life and toyed with it like a yarn ball. When she packed up and moved to the city, it followed her—twisting her abdomen as she found work in the steel factories at Sparrow’s Point, then nipping at her ankles as she walked among Baltimore’s row homes.

“A little more room,” it demanded, sitting on her skirts as she purchased her first house.

Henrietta Lacks was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She was treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland.

She had to be strong, but the Knot found a way to pry at the cracks in her shield. It could not create enough weight to snap her, but just enough to push down until she lay down in her own grave.

It wasn’t until the very end that it became inevitable that her cells would multiply and crowd and shut down her system. The knot would stand over the weakened body, tugging at her skirt and encouraging her to continue to come play again, anxious to show the strength that she created.

“Come on, Henrietta, wake up.”

It stayed with her until the doctors pulled the knot by its hand and locked it into a small container, renaming it something ugly and poisonous.

During her treatment for cervical cancer, doctors conducted a biopsy of her cancerous cells. Henrietta did not consent to this biopsy.

The knot never died, not fully at least. It only allowed itself to be tamed on occasion, rearing its ugly head whenever it saw fit. Henrietta, however, was too mortal, too dark, and too strong to be allowed to live longer. As she suffered and labored, her other self expanded in its prison until it was cut down and controlled.

Her cells, known to scientists as the HeLa cell line, helped to develop the polio vaccine. The doctors tested on her cells for years without her family’s knowledge.

She suffered until the end, and they only could watch on.

“Why aren’t you awake?”

Suffering took on many forms. But waiting for the inevitable was the worst of all emotional pains.

“Henrietta? Come on and wake up already!”

Henrietta died poor at the age of thirty-one, leaving behind five children and a husband who could not afford health insurance.

The doctors carved a name into the test tubes, while her family could not afford to carve a headstone.

“HeLa.” That was all she was to be known by to the world.

In the early 1970s, a large portion of HeLa cells became contaminated by other cell cultures. As a result, members of Lacks' family received numerous solicitations for blood samples from researchers hoping to learn about the family's genetics in order to replace the contaminated cells. Alarmed and confused, several family members began questioning why they were receiving so many telephone calls requesting blood samples. In this way, the family learned for the first time that samples of cells from Lacks's tumor had been saved for research…
Henrietta’s liberation never came. Not from the doctors, at least. Although her family thought she was laid to rest, she was kept alive in the most artificial way possible: renamed into a cell line, refused acknowledgement, and virtually erased until the necessity for more of her samples arose.

Maybe one day, after the family was allowed to lay Henrietta down to rest, she would be free—not just known about to researchers, but truly laid to rest. In the mountain that was her life, she would ascend, her children pushing, and her husband pulling her towards the peak. Henrietta would reach the top and dance like a queen, the weight of cancer lifted from her shoulders. Then with her arms above her head and her skirts dancing around her like clouds on the tips of crane feathers, Henrietta would be free.

Henrietta’s cells have been bought and sold by the billions, yet she remains virtually unknown, and her family can’t afford health insurance.

Maya James is a freelance writer based in Maryland. She has written and performed speeches in front of various audiences, mainly politicians and diplomats. When she’s not writing or reading, you can find her drinking sweet tea or boxing.