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April 18, 2011
Henrietta Lacks' Story: A Case of PR Malpractice
 
In addition to its pertinence to medicine, science and race relations, Rebecca Skloot's 2010 book, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks", should be recognized as a classic study of public relations malpractice, so long as the word gets around about that aspect of its story. The PR staff at Johns Hopkins Hospital  in East Baltimore, Md., is no doubt mindful of that. The heart of good PR is taking people seriously. Neither Henrietta Lacks nor her family were taken seriously when a sample of her cervical cancer cells was taken and immortalized – without their knowledge – as the HeLa cell line.

Rebecca Skloot's documentation of the insensitivity that was shown toward the Lacks family at Johns Hopkins, unwittingly or not, makes you plain angry. It's a different day now, and much no doubt has been learned from the HeLa experience, but the tale of what happened during the 1950s should be a continuing reminder of the importance of empathy - identifying with another - no matter how much difference in education and status lies between people. It wasn't Johns Hopkins as an institutiion that was a problem for Henrietta Lacks; it was the unwitting, lofty conduct of professionals who worked there. In one realm or another, in all ages, that's a proclivity that needs to be guarded against. And it's the sort of thing enlightened PR should be mindful of.

Here's possibly the most telling exchange in the book, a scene that occurred in 2001, 50 years after the HeLa cells were taken from Henrietta Lacks:  "'So we don't have the thing that made her cells grow forever?' Deborah (one of Henrietta's daughters) asked. Christoph shook his head. 'Now you tell me after all these years!' Deborah yelled. 'Thank God, cause I was wonderin!'"

In 2011, Christoph Lengauer was a Hopkins researcher who got it right, who understood the perplexity the Lax family, or anyone, might have over the complexities of cellular biology. Compassionately, he explained to Deborah that the agent that caused Henrietta's cells to become cancerous wasn't inheritable by offspring.

But in 1971, 20 years after Henrietta Lacks' death, Johns Hopkins scientists had written an article in a medical journal about the history of the HeLa cell line that first revealed Henreita's identity. The article was written as a tribute to the Hopkins researcher who grew the first HeLa cells from Henrietta's cancerous tissue. Yet no thought was apparently given to whether her family knew anything about the cells. They didn't, but not for much longer.

It goes on...thoughtless dealings about a nearly faceless patient at a big city hospital. Medicine without a genuinely relational component. Hard as it may be for busy people in any field to summon images of and regard for others whose lives they intersect, that's what's required of a relational outlook. Rebecca Skloot reminds us of that in a masterpiece of empathetic research.

Read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and, in your dealings with others, don't ever forget what you've read.

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Doug Bedell has a background in journalism and PR and is the owner of Resource Relations LLC in Central PA, focusing on organizational and crisis communication. He’s the community manager of SimplyFair.net, a social network on fairness. On the Web, Doug’s at www.ResourceRelations.com. On Twitter, he’s @DougBeetle.
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