Chapter 11 Summary

1951

Henrietta’s suffering went on for months. She had tumors in most of her major organs. Her kidneys were failing. Her stomach was swollen. She received so many blood transfusions that a doctor eventually put a stop to them, saying that she had depleted the supplies in the blood bank.

Word of Henrietta’s blood bank problem soon reached the steel mill where her husband and many of her male cousins worked. By now, the whole community knew about Henrietta’s illness, and they all wanted to help her get better. Henrietta’s cousin Emmett Lacks gathered a group of eight men and took them to the hospital to donate blood for her.

Most of the men who went to give blood that day were cousins of Henrietta’s, men who had moved from the country to Baltimore to work in the steel mill, just as Day had done many years before. When they arrived, Henrietta let these men stay in her home, sometimes for months, until they were able to afford housing of their own. Emmett was the most recent of the men she had helped in this way.

Emmett had often stepped up to help Henrietta, too. Recently, he had taken her for her final visit to Elsie, her epileptic and mentally disabled daughter who now lived at Crownsville Hospital. Elsie had seemed miserable when she was first placed in the hospital, but on this visit she looked fairly clean and content. Henrietta—probably in an effort to convince herself—told Emmett repeatedly that Elsie was happy and safe.

On the day of the impromptu blood drive, Emmett led his little group of eight men to Henrietta’s bedside. Her sister Gladys and cousin Sadie were already there, sitting by the bed looking sad and exhausted. As Emmett and the other men stood by, they saw that Henrietta was tied down. They soon understood why: a fit of pain hit her, and she began screaming and thrashing violently. Years later, Emmett said, “Henrietta rose up out of that bed like she been possessed by the devil of pain itself.” He had never seen anyone so sick before. He and the other men mutely left to give blood for her, but they now understood that this could not save her life. Henrietta was clearly dying.

A few days later, doctors stopped all of Henrietta’s treatment except pain medications. She lasted two more days after that, then woke up and told her sister Gladys that she was ready to go. She asked Gladys to tell Day to take good care of the children. Then she closed her eyes and went to sleep. A few hours later, she died.