portrait of Henrietta Lacks with lines building on her image to a grid of connected dots

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

by Rebecca Skloot

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How does Deborah die in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks?

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Deborah, who was born in 1949, suffered anxiety and the pain of never really having known her mother, Henrietta Lacks, who died in 1951. She often expressed the desire to go to heaven to be reunited with her mother. While she helped the author, Rebecca Skloot, research the book, Deborah only became more and more anxious and stressed out. She had repeated outbreaks of hives, and then she was diagnosed with high blood pressure and high blood sugar. After learning about her sister, Elsie, who died while institutionalized many years before, Deborah almost suffered a stroke. Then, after the stress of additional family trauma and 9/11, Deborah had a stroke at church and was kept alive by her grandson, who slapped her face to keep her awake. She died of a heart attack right after Mother's Day in 2009.

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Deborah died of her sleep in 2009.  She was 60 years old.

Deborah Lacks never appreciated the injustice her family suffered as a result of doctors at John Hopkins taking her cells.  In her diary, Deborah writes about the irony of her mother’s unknowing contribution to medical science.

But I’ve always thought it was strange, if our mother cells done so much for medicine, how come her family can’t afford to see no doctors?  Don’t make no sense. (“Deborah’s Voice,” p. 9)

More than any member of Henrietta’s family, Deborah was angered by the injustice.  At the end of this journal entry she says that she is tired of fighting, but just wants to know who her mother was.  Skloot interviewed Deborah for a whole year, but it took a long time to gain her trust.

Deborah had a difficult life.  She told Skloot she did not want to get rich, but she wished she had health insurance to pay for the drugs she took that her mother’s cells probably helped make.

Skloot was not aware that Deborah had died, though she knew her health was always questionable.  She found out she died in her sleep.  Her brother said she died happy.  Her grandchildren were doing well.  The book was going to be published, and her mother and family would get the recognition they deserved and the children would get some financial support.

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