Winderman and Landau

Chapter 3 From HeLa Cells to Henrietta Lacks: Rehumanization and Pathos as Interventions for the Rhetoric of Health and Medicine

Emily Winderman and Jamie Landau

What is the most important takeaway from your chapter?

Medical practice, healthcare, and science writing in the United States have relied upon the systematic dehumanization of African-Americans and emotional distancing from patients. However, pathos-laden rhetoric can return humanness to patients. 

If you were making discussion questions for students (advanced undergraduates or early graduate students) to go along with your chapter, what would they be? 

  • Similar to the book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, can you identify other contemporary artifacts of health and medicine that rehumanize patients? Are there any historical case studies?
  • Beyond personification and building familial networks of affiliation, what other rhetorical strategies could contribute to rehumanization? 
  • How would you conduct your own rhetorical analysis of rehumanization? What mixed methods might you employ? 
  • How could Rebecca Skloot’s science writing, especially her reflexive voicing, be more attuned to her whiteness and the histories of medical racism in the United States? 

What questions do you feel your chapter leaves un-examined or where would you go with it next?

  • When teaching this book to students at predominantly white universities, some students said they “felt bad for” Henrietta Lacks. Left unexamined by this chapter is how the book might instantiate feelings of pity that produce a hierarchical racial relationship between white readers, Henrietta Lacks, and African-American families. Future research should examine the book’s limitations of building family networks of affiliation between whites and blacks. 
  • This chapter does not address the HBO film that was modeled after the book. After watching the movie, the authors propose that it problematically centers Rebecca Skloot as the savior of Henrietta Lacks’ story, as well as erases key characters, like Mary Kubicek, who played a crucial role in rehumanization. Do you agree?
  • In many Intensive Care Units nowadays, patients and their families are encouraged to display family photos. Since this chapter analyzes images in the book, how might family photos in hospital rooms affect healthcare providers who work in medical settings to support African-American patients?

Is there anything that you want those new to the field to know about RHM?

In the spirit of rehumanization, we argue that RHM as a field is an affiliative web constituted by the bodies, emotions, and stories of scholars themselves. As such, scholars who are new to the field should be prepared to have skin in the game.

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