COVID-19 Vaccinations “Overwhelming” to Henrietta Lacks’ Family

Bessie Lacks and her grandson Jermaine Jackson of Kalamazoo, Michigan, were overwhelmed with emotion when they received their Pfizer COVID-19 vaccinations earlier this spring.

Not just because they were being vaccinated or because they were receiving the Pfizer vaccine — which was developed in Kalamazoo County — but because of an even closer connection. The Pfizer vaccine never would have been developed as it is without the use of cells taken from Lacks’ sister-in-law in 1951, before Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland.

Henrietta’s family didn’t know for 25 years that Henrietta’s cells, the first discovered immortal cell line, were being used daily in scientific research. They were only compensated over 60 years after those cells were harvested without her knowledge.

Lacks said she has great appreciation for all of the work the researchers have done over the years, using the HeLa cells to first develop the polio vaccine, develop AIDS and chemotherapy treatments and develop drugs from everything from Parkinson’s disease to sexually transmitted diseases, and much more.

It was with pride that Bessie Lacks received her Pfizer vaccine.

“Personally, I just thank God her cells are still being used and that they are doing so much. It’s really wonderful,” Lacks said. “I was telling everybody, the vaccine was, in part, because of my sister-in-law … I just hope everyone can respect what it is and know that part of that family is still around.”

While it is a joy, grandson Jackson, 45, said, knowing his great aunt lives on through medical science — and to know that anyone who is a cancer survivor or received AIDS treatment or the Coronavirus vaccine has been touched by her — the injustices felt by the family and many Black people, he said, are very real.

Jackson spoke of trust issues for Black people with the medical community.

“Even donating organs is a scary thing, still, for a lot of Black people,” he said. “Many of us think there is a greater possibility if we sign on as organ donors, that they may just let us die in order to use that organ to save another life. There’s still trust issues. There have been for years.

Bessie Lacks explained that Henrietta’s family couldn’t afford her medical treatment, and yet her cells were being sold across the world for medical research that benefitted many others.

Only with the passage of time have some of the Lacks family begun to feel a sense of pride knowing what their grandmother’s cells have contributed.

For Bessie Lacks, her own cancer treatments and her COVID vaccine have some extra significance.

“I know it did it a lot,” she said. “But it wasn’t me; it was my sister-in-law. We were just married to two brothers.”

Complete story at MLive