“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 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.’”
As part of the summer reading before my high school biology class, we were asked to read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The book offers a fascinating take on the ethical issues surrounding the first immortalized human cell line, discussing the injustices at the intersection of class, gender, and race within the American research and medical system. What most resonates with me from the story – even years later – is the excerpt above. When Mary Kubicek, a lab assistant, is performing the autopsy on Henrietta Lacks’ body, she notices Lacks’ bright red painted toenails. For months up until that point, Kubicek had been focused on the scientific aspect of the HeLa cells and how significant they were for advancing medical breakthroughs. In that exact moment, she grasps the personhood and humanity of the woman whose body lies in front of her.
In the healthcare profession, medical training often teaches students to become numb to the pain of the people with whom they will interact. In some ways, this is inevitable and necessary: when persistently dealing with intense life or death situations, healthcare professionals cannot let their emotions cloud their judgment in providing the best possible care. Yet the idea that we can simply forget the humanity of those we serve does not sit right with me. While certainly not operating within the same dynamics, the law school curriculum, too, can desensitize us to the personhood of the people we serve.
From the minute we enter law school as 1Ls, we learn the doctrine from case books. From the fall semester of 1L, I learned to highlight the facts in blue, the holding in pink, and the reasoning in orange. It quickly became easy for me to talk about facts as if they were mere hypothetical situations. My professors asked, “what did the plaintiff do?” and I learned to scan my textbook for the blue highlights and give them the facts. I learned to play with the facts and answer the what if’s, to grapple with how certain facts could fit into certain legal frameworks and advance the argument on both sides. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, I lost sight of the human element of these cases; I could talk about “the defendant” and “the plaintiff.” I could discuss the Hawkins, Korematsu, and Liebeck cases in terms of the rules they offered, but it was lost on me that these last names were attached to people with emotions, families, and lives.
George Hawkins from the famous “Hairy Hand” contracts case had to deal with not only the physical pain, but also the social embarrassment and psychological trauma of his skin graft gone wrong. Fred Korematsu and his family were sent to a relocation center with inadequate heating and cooling, where ill health among inmates was prevalent. At nearly 80 years old, Stella Lieback from the “McDonalds hot coffee” case suffered from third degree burns across 16% of her body and was disabled for over two years. The legal theories and pragmatic consequences of these cases are profound, but how can we think about them and discuss them as if they happened to fictional characters as opposed to human beings?
This semester, I’m in a class where we develop litigation skills through a ‘hypothetical’ motor vehicle collision scenario. The facts on which the coursework is based come from a case my professor handled several years ago – a real case, with a real person, with real consequences. Over the past few weeks, as I’ve read through the police report, watched the surveillance footage of the accident, and sifted through the various discovery documents, I’ve been reflecting on the excerpt from the book. As I think about the legal concept of negligence, I try to form a legal theory about duty, breach, cause, and harm given the information we’ve been provided. Beyond that, I can’t help but consider the human element as well. When our client left his house that morning, did he have any idea that in mere hours, he would be paralyzed from the neck down? Did he have a spouse or children? What must his family have felt hearing the news? How would they take care of him going forward? Could the law ever truly make him and his loved ones ‘whole’ again?
For me, coursework right now does come in the form of speculative fact sets, either from previous cases or from hypothetical situations. Mostly, we’re learning the law while being removed from the actual clients themselves. But when we enter the legal profession, we won’t be reading from precedent and intellectually positing in the abstract. We’ll be representing and engaging with real people with real problems and real lives. Our clients will come to us in times of pain and suffering, and it will be our duty to care – not as lawyers, but as people first. As an attorney, I will be blessed to be equipped with the knowledge and power of a JD to help others navigate the legal system. I am confident that my time in law school has prepared me to be a good lawyer. But beyond that, we all have the ability to listen to someone, see their personhood, and relate to them, simply as another human being if nothing else. We all have the ability to express genuine care and have empathy for others. We didn’t need law school to teach us that, and we can’t allow law school to let us forget it.
Roma Gujarathi is a third-year student at BC Law. Contact her at email@example.com.