Henrietta Lacks was born and raised and lived her whole life between Baltimore, Maryland, and Clover, Virginia. She and her family were all poor black tobacco farmers or miners. She married her cousin, and they had 5 children together.
River Tam was born on a planet controlled by the Alliance, which took over when Earth got too crowded, and terraformed new planets to support the ever-growing population. She went to an Alliance school before her brother rescued her, after which they lived on a ship which took on semi-legal jobs around the fringes of the galaxy.
When we meet River Tam in the TV show “Firefly,” she is 17 years old. When we meet Henrietta Lacks in the book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” she is dead. Sort of.
River Tam was a fictional character.
Henrietta Lacks was real.
When you compare River Tam and Henrietta Lacks on the surface, they appear not to have anything in common. But when you dig a little deeper, there are many similarities.
Henrietta and River were both taken advantage of by doctors: Henrietta, because she was poor, black, and uneducated; River because she was young, privileged, and brilliant.
While Henrietta was under anesthesia for surgery to treat her cervical cancer, the surgeon took a sample of the cancer for his lab without Henrietta’s consent. When River went to the Alliance school for gifted children, doctors performed extremely damaging surgery on her brain without her consent.
Henrietta’s cancer cells turned out to be the first immortal cell line ever grown in a lab, and since the 1950s they have been used all over the world in testing vaccines for and doing research on diseases such as polio and HIV/AIDS. We never really find out what the operations on River’s brain did for the Alliance doctors, but the result of those operations proves very important in saving the lives of the crew of Serenity, the ship River and her brother are on.
At first, the families of Henrietta and River had no idea what had happened to them. It took Simon, River’s brother, several months on board Serenity before he was able to get to a place where he could find out what had been done to River. It took years for the children of Henrietta Lacks to even find out that cells had been taken. And even quite a while after both Henrietta’s children and Simon found out what had happened to their mother and sister respectively, they didn’t know why those things had been done, and they didn’t know what to do about them.
I believe Simon never found out why the Alliance doctors had performed the operations on River, and he never found a way to completely reverse the damage. After Henrietta’s children learned that their mother’s cancer cells had become immortal, they tried to get their mother’s name known as the person behind the cells. Years passed before Rebecca Skloot came along and was able to help them.
Henrietta Lacks and River Tam were both taken advantage of by doctors.
They and their families were damaged by their operations.
They were both loved.