Chapter 32 Summary

2001

Rebecca invited the whole Lacks family to tour Cristoph Lengauer’s cancer lab at Johns Hopkins, but only Deborah and Zakarriya agreed to go. Day was ill and Sonny had to work. Lawrence, for his part, was fed up with hearing about HeLa. 

When Christoph welcomed Deborah and Zakarriya, he acknowledged how difficult it must be for them to come to the hospital given all they went through. He took them first to a freezer room to show how HeLa cells were stored. He explained that researchers had to be careful to prevent HeLa from contaminating other cell cultures, and he was pleasantly surprised when Deborah knew a bit about this issue. He commented that the contamination problem had been “poetic justice” because it cost millions of dollars. Deborah joked back:

My mother was just getting back at scientists for keepin all them secrets from the family…You don’t mess with Henrietta—she’ll sic HeLa on your ass!

Next, Cristoph led the way to a laboratory, where he displayed a magnified image of living HeLa cells on a screen. Answering the Lackses' questions, he explained that only Henrietta’s cancer cells were alive, not her regular cells. He also told them about the difference between cells and DNA. Deborah knew that DNA was passed from parents to children, so it frightened her to hear that Henrietta’s cancer came from a DNA mistake. Cristoph explained that this particular DNA mistake came from a virus and thus would not have been passed on to her children. Deborah exclaimed, “Now you tell me after all these years!...Thank God, because I was wonderin!”

Near the end of this conversation, Cristoph spotted two cells in the process of dividing. He pointed them out, and both Deborah and Zakarriya watched in fascination. They were amazed, as if they were witnessing a miracle.

When the conversation turned to the fact that the Lackses had never before been invited to see HeLa cells, Cristoph said, “Yeah, Hopkins pretty much screwed up, I think.” Deborah and Zakarriya stared at him, amazed to hear a Johns Hopkins scientist admitting such a gaffe. Cristoph told them that their mother was an important figure in history and that she deserved recognition. He also said that, in his opinion, the family should receive a percentage of the profits from the sale of HeLa cells.

Zakarriya remained silent throughout most of the tour. As everyone was leaving, he tapped both Cristoph and Rebecca on the shoulder and thanked them. Then he silently boarded a bus home. The women watched him go in amazement. “Girl, you just witnessed a miracle,” Deborah said.