Mary stood beside Wilbur, waiting as he sewed Henrietta’s abdomen closed. She wanted to run out of the morgue and back to the lab, but instead, she stared at Henrietta’s arms and legs — anything to avoid looking into her lifeless eyes. Then Mary’s gaze fell on Henrietta’s feet, and she gasped: Henrietta’s toenails were covered in chipped bright red polish.
“When I saw those toenails,” Mary told me years later, “I nearly fainted. I thought, Oh jeez, she’s a real person. I started imagining her sitting in her bathroom painting those toenails, and it hit me for the first time that those cells we’d been working with all this time and sending all over the world, they came from a live woman. I’d never thought of it that way.” [pp. 90-91]
This passage recalls another, from last year’s One Community/One Book selection. In the first chapter of Final Exam: A Surgeon’s Reflections on Mortality, Pauline Chen recalls her experiences in the gross anatomy lab in medical school:
Despite all the precautions taken by my medical school, my cadaver hardly remained an impersonal corpse with anonymous extremities. I remember unzipping the white bag that held her and being surprised by her thin arms. Her fingers were long and slender, with delicate, pointed tips; her nails had been filed into fine ovals and painted with coral nail polish. It was probably time for another manicure, as just above her neatly maintained cuticles were slender little half-moons of bare pink nail. [p. 13]
Like Pauline Chen’s book, Rebecca Skloot’s book examines an important tension that exists in research and clinical practice. Both clinicians and researchers must balance the need for detachment and objectivity against the need to understand and empathize with patients and subjects to ensure effective and ethical practice.
Have you ever had moments like those experienced by Mary Kubicek and Pauline Chen in these passages? Has a certain detail or realization struck you with an important insight about a patient or research subject? Bearing in mind the importance of protecting privacy, describe the effect that experience had on you in the comments below.