Life had been terribly tough for Henrietta Lacks. She was the great-grand daughter of a black slave and a white master.
Her mother died when she was only four years old and her father, unable to work and care for 10 children, parceled out her and her siblings to the care of various relatives. She was sent to live with her grandfather and grew up in the very cabin that had been the slave quarters on her great-grandfather’s plantation. She had her first child at the age of 14. She went on to have four more children before she died of metastasized cancer at the young age of 31. She was buried in an unmarked grave on her family’s ancestral property. Her grieving husband David and five children tried to put the painful memories of her cancer behind them in order to continue their struggle to survive.
But that is hardly the end Henrietta’s story. In fact, in a very real way, Henrietta lives on. You see, on one of her visits to John Hopkins University Hospital, doctors took a biopsy of a tumor in her uterus. The cells from the biopsy were placed in a culture by medical research scientist, George Otto Gey. He applied blood plasma from a chicken to the cells and they did what no other human cancer cell culture had done before or since. They survived and multiplied.
Soon Dr. Gey was sending samples of these HeLa (short for Henrietta Lacks) cells to researchers around the world. Their ability to survive and rapidly multiply made them ideal for medical research. For instance, in 1954 Jonas Salk used these Hela cells in his research to develop the inoculation for polio. They have since been used “in research into cancer, AIDS, the effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, and countless other scientific pursuits.” In 1955 HeLa cells were the first human cells to be cloned and “have since been used to test human sensitivity to tape, glue, cosmetics, and many other products.” Since the 1950s scientists have multiplied 20 tons of HeLa cells – hundreds of times Henrietta’s body weight – and from them have produced 11,000 medical patents. The lives that have been and will be saved as a result of Henrietta Lacks “immortal cells” is inestimable.
Though the use and proliferation of those original cancer cells has raised many bioethical questions – since they were taken without her or her family’s knowledge – we should not miss the overall triumph of this tragic story. That which caused death to Henrietta, brought life to countless others. Scientists still do not understand why Henrietta’s cancer cells have been able to multiply indefinitely, but their anomalous survival has made an incalculable contribution to medical science and humanity. Truly, out of Henrietta’s sad tragedy has come a glorious triumph for millions.
This also happens to be the story of the Bible – beginning with the greatest tragedy of all time, when humanity murdered the most important man who ever lived. Yes, when Jesus, the Son of God, was rejected by the religious leaders and crucified by the Roman governor it was a terrible miscarriage of justice. But God used that worst event of human history to bring about mankind’s redemption. By His death, eternal life has come to countless others (Romans 5:12-18).
And can’t God do the same with the most tragic and painful events of our lives? From the injustices that Joseph’s brothers inflicted upon him, God brought about the salvation of the inhabited earth. Though deeply wounded by his brothers, Joseph would go on to tell them, “What you intended for evil, God intended for good – the preservation of many lives” (Genesis 50:20).
If you are wounded and broken from tragedy, fall into God’s loving and healing embrace. Let Him love you and carry you. Though you cannot begin to make sense of your pain, do not
abandon your faith. No matter how shocking or painful life’s crushing blows may be, God can bring healing, purpose, and salvation from them all.
Dear Father in heaven, when I am called to pass through the rivers of sorrow and grief, please uphold me and keep me from being swept away. Help me to navigate through the dark valleys to see the light again. From my pain bring about gain in the lives of others. Amen.
You do not need to face this challenge alone. Jesus has conquered this challenge so that you can move from your present situation to a life of overcoming. Invite him to lead you in your journey. He will forgive, comfort, and heal you.
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