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Henrietta Lacks’ story becomes important part of Mint’s Hero journey

 

Some stories last and last and grow, and Henrietta Lack’s life and contributions to science is one of them.

Yet for many years, despite her significance to health researchers, her story was ignored or untold or masked. Lack, a mother who grew up on a Virginia tobacco farm, suffered cervical cancer. She sought treatment at Johns Hopkins Medical Center and in 1951, a researcher took two tissue samples from her cervix, one cancerous and one healthy, without her consent or knowledge. Known as the HeLa cells, they became invaluable to understand and solve many diseases, yet Henrietta Lack for decades received no recognition.

Lack’s is one of 15 portraits in Mint’s Heroes: Now & Then show, on display at the Grand Rapids Art Museum through May 22. The exhibit, the first traveling exhibit organized by Mint, debuted in September at the Scarab Club in Detroit. We knew the show, like Lack’s story, needed to be seen.  So ot moved to the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center in late fall, and opened at Grand Rapids Art Museum Feb. 20.  Read more of about Heroes: Now & Then back story in this wonderful Model D feature article

Mint’s Heroes: Now & Then show at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. (Photo: Grand Rapids Art Museum)

Despite aggressive treatment for cancer, Henrietta Lack’s died eight months after she was first seen at Johns Hopkins Hospital at age 31. It was 1951 and no one had told Lacks or her family that her cells were harvested during her treatment and would become the backbone of medical treatments for decades to come.  Lacks children suffered after their mother died; one daughter developed childhood epilepsy and died unvisited in a state hospital.  

Three Nobel prizes

Her impact continues today as thousands of scientists use her HeLa cells – the first immortal or ever growing cells –  to investigate drugs and seek cures for many diseases. Among the successful discoveries based on her HeLa cells are cures or treatment or for polio, hemophilia, Parkinson’s and to develop gene mapping, understand the effect of cells in space, infectivity of HIV and fight several kinds of cancer. More than 110,000 publications from 1953 to 2018 cited her HeLa cells and scientists received at least three Nobel Prizes based on their research using her cells, the National Institutes of Health reported.  

“For researchers, HeLa cells were experimental workhorses, wonderfully easy to grow and transport. But for the Lacks family, those cells were the essence of their lost mother, whom scientists had infected with viruses, shot into space, crossed with mice, and generally condemned to everlasting torment,” wrote The Lancet, a medical publication.

At first, scientists used a pseudonym – Helen Lane – on the cells. It took 20 years for Henrietta Lack’s name to come forward and almost 30 more years for her story to be well told by journalist Rebecca Skloot. This reminds us a bit of how some Black artists and painters were treated by many museums and galleries for too long.

STEAM stories and art

Mint’s portrait of Henrietta Lacks shows how art and science dance beautifully together, what some call STEAM.  Oluwaseyi Akintoroye chose Lacks as her hero and carefully researched her HeLa cell structure before she painted in the portrait’s background.  (Her beautiful painting of lavender flowers recently was turned into  a Mint greeting card  and Mint is considering a Heroes series of postcards.)

If you wish to learn more about Henrietta Lack’s life and impact, check out the best-selling book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Read an excerpt from Skloot’s book here.  (The author helped launch the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which provides support for others who have contributed to scientific research with no benefit or knowledge.) Or watch the documentary based on that book, which stars Oprah Winfrey and is available on HBO Max or for rent on Amazon Prime.

If you wish to support Mint’s arts, science, youth development and creative summer jobs program, be a Hero and please donate a few dollars today

© Vickie Elmer, 2021 for Mint Artists Guild

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Heroes earn low wages and high praise – and ours show up in Grand Rapids

The heroes of the covid-19 pandemic wear scrubs and stethoscopes or care for frail seniors. They carry a megaphone, cook eggs and work overnight to refill grocery shelves.

And they show up in the paintings Mint Artists summer workers created last year, which formed our first traveling exhibit Heroes; Now & Then. That exhibit will be on display at the Grand Rapids Art Museum through May 22, with timed ticket entry.  The Heroes show debuted last year in Detroit.

Like many of our Heroes who come from around the globe, America’s heroes are everyday workers who earn a median wage of $10.93 an hour as grocery cashiers or $13.48 an hour for health care jobs including orderlies, health aides and housekeepers. They are considered “essential workers” and lauded by politicians and people who rely on their labor.

Health care workers protest low wages last year. (Photo: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona / Unsplash)

And yet these heroes and essential workers face common issues: 55 percent of them live paycheck to paycheck and some 60 percent are taking steps or see others speaking up to improve health conditions at work, a Harris Poll found.  Almost one in four health care workers report reduced income during the pandemic, especially for doctors, paramedics, health technicians and others.

Heroes face distress, stress and fears for themselves and their loved ones as they do their jobs. Many in health care do not believe the hero label will last long.

Yet Mint prefers to believe that heroes – and our hero paintings – will inspire and endure. We hope they encourage valor and thoughtful consideration of who is a hero as well as greater appreciation of the heroes who live among us.

“If enough people hear about their actions, they can inspire others to do something heroic too,” philanthropist Bill Gates wrote in a blog post about seven unsung heroes of the pandemic. One of them is Laxmi Rayamajhi, health care worker in Nepal who hikes for hours to provide contraceptives to women in remote villages.

So take time to read some books about everyday heroes. And please visit our heroes in Grand Rapids or on our website in a booklet Mint prepared.