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In the world we live in there is a
noticeable gap between the rich and the poor when it comes to socioeconomic
status, and with that there is a serious problem with the health inequalities
that people experience. Health inequalities are, “differences in health that
are not only unnecessary, but also unfair and unjust” (Whitehead 1992). When
there is a massive spectrum of people making different amounts of money there
is going to be people that fall on the lower end of the spectrum.
Unfortunately, many people in our society today are falling in the lower end of
the spectrum because the higher end is taken up by a small amount of very
wealthy people. When there is this gap between the rich and the poor you start
to see the differences in how these people live and more importantly, how long
they live. With a lot of research that has been done it has been said that, “individuals
with a higher socioeconomic status tend to have better health outcomes compared
to those with a lower socioeconomic status” (Riegelman and Kirkwood, 2016, 77).
Not only is health a factor that we can see a difference in the rich and poor
but many other factors as well and we call these factors social determinants.
Social determinants are “the conditions in which people are born, grow up,
live, learn, work, play, as well as the systems put in place to deal with
illnesses that affect health and quality of life” (Riegelman and Kirkwood,
2016, 79). Now we will review the social determinants that Henrietta Lacks
experienced in her short but monumental lifetime.

            In the novel of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, there is a
woman that you learn about named Henrietta Lacks and soon find out that she has
made a difference all around the world. Henrietta Lacks is the woman behind
HeLa cells which have done so much for our society over the years which
includes treating herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia and Parkinson’s
disease (Skloot, 2011, pg 4). This woman’s cells made many medical advancements
but unfortunately, she died at the age of 30 years old of cervical cancer. Her
short life could most definitely be related to certain social determinants that
lead to her early death like poor housing, education, stress, health services
and much more. Henrietta grew up with 10 siblings in Roanoke, Virginia and lost
her mother at a young age. This was a time where racism and segregation was
prevalent, especially in the south. Once Henrietta was grown she lived in one
of the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods in Baltimore. She essentially
lived in the projects where only blacks were allowed to live. This place was
called Turner station where factories were booming and many poor individuals
found work. The working conditions were unsafe causing many of the workers and
their families to be infected with asbestos and toxic coal dust. These health
conditions were what all the poor blacks had experienced since there were not
many jobs they were allowed to work and housing was limited. It was stated that,
“Individuals of lower socioeconomic status are more likely to be exposed to
health hazards at work and in the physical environment through toxic exposure
in the air they breathe, the water they drink and in the food they eat,”
(Riegelman and Kirkwood, 2016, pg 78). Besides Henrietta’s poor housing that
she was forced to live in because of her low socioeconomic status she also
didn’t have much of an education. Henrietta only attended school until the 6th
grade when she was forced to drop out and help her grandfather with his tobacco
fields. Not having much of an education can lead to having less of a healthy
life. As a child she worked in the fields with her cousins no matter what the
weather conditions were. When she would help her grandfather sell the tobacco
they would have to travel and she had to sleep in a basement with animals. Since
her education didn’t continue after the 6th grade she had no other
option but to help her grandfather in the tobacco fields and then start a
family of her own.

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 Henrietta had her first baby at the age of 14
and then was married by the age of 20, she was a stay at home mom that was
expected to take care of everything at home while her husband Day worked at the
factory. Henrietta wasn’t able to choose what job she wanted, it was normal in
this time period and in her culture to have kids and start a family. Henrietta
was known to be very inviting and would always take care of her cousins by
making them food. Not only did Henrietta care for everyone but she also needed
to take care of herself which placed a lot of stress in her life. Stress is one
social determinant that cannot only impact your mental health but your
biological health as well (Riegelman and Kirkwood, 2016, 81). One of the biggest
stresses that Henrietta had to deal with was her own sickness that caused a
rapid decline in her health. Henrietta first realized something was wrong when
she suddenly started bleeding while she was not on her menstrual cycle, she
knew she needed medical attention. This meant that Henrietta had to go visit
John Hopkins Hospital which was about a twenty-mile drive from her home. Back
then John Hopkins was the only hospital that would care for the blacks and the
poor so it was her only option, she did not have much access to health
services. When not having adequate access to health services like Henrietta
experienced this caused her health to decline. That same problem occurs today with
many people that have a low socioeconomic status, they don’t have much preventative
care so they get sick very easily and have a hard time finding treatment,
especially if they do not have insurance, (Riegelman and Kirkwood, 2016, 81). Luckily,
Henrietta was able to have Day drive her to the hospital and she would
sometimes walk home after her appointments. Transportation back then was scarce
and most of the time walking for Henrietta was not a problem until she started
to get sick. When Henrietta first knew about the cancer she immediately told her
cousin Sadie and Margaret who were her only social support besides Day. They
would continue to take care of Henrietta until she got too sick. Social support
is important when dealing with sickness but unfortunately because of the
discrimination that was happening around Henrietta she was socially excluded
from society, (Riegelman and Kirkwood, 2016, pg 80). When Henrietta got sick
doctors performed very extreme treatments with radium which caused her to burn
from the inside out. The treatments however were not effective enough and her
cancer spread faster than doctors anticipated. Soon after the treatments
Henrietta’s health failed completely and she passed away at the age of 30. Many
factor’s in her life contributed to her decline without her even knowing it.
These factors would be her social determinants which were not very good since
she had a low socioeconomic status and discrimination forced her to live
without a lot.

In today’s society we see that
there is an unfair advantage that the wealthy obtains while the poor go without
healthcare, food, housing and a good education which most people think are
everyday essentials. Henrietta Lacks was a great example of how health
inequality took place because she was poor and not able to have access to the
“everyday essentials.” When we look at the research, it is true that all of the
social determinants work together to determine our state of health and
wellness, we don’t have to look much further than Henrietta Lack’s life. It is
sad to think about how different her life could have been if she had the
treatments and medicine we have today but like most she may have not had the
money or health insurance to help her. It is a big issue that we face even
today that we all need to work on because no one should go without food,
housing and many other essentials. Hopefully as a nation we can recognize and
fix health disparities by improving the social determinants that surround us
every day and make them more accessible.

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