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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Chapter 37 Summary

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2001

At the doctor’s office, Deborah learned that her blood pressure and blood sugar were so high they had almost caused a stroke. Erratic behavior, hives, and disjointed speech are all symptoms of these conditions, so these health problems helped to explain her behavior on her research trip. The doctor told Deborah to avoid stress at all cost. For the next several months, she did so.

Rebecca continued her research alone and, for some time, shared only the happy bits with Deborah. Deborah still wanted to speak at the upcoming medical conference in Washington, D.C. and with her doctor’s blessing, she slowly began to prepare for this trip. 

Unfortunately, Deborah's personal life brought her a great deal of additional stress. Her son Alfred was in prison for robbery and other crimes, and one of Lawrence’s sons had recently been arrested as well. Also, Lawrence and Zakariyyah were both still angry that they had not received any money for HeLa.

Amid these problems came the September 11th attacks, which stopped one of Rebecca’s research trips and ultimately resulted in the cancellation of the medical conference where Deborah was supposed to speak. This was a blow to Deborah, who went to church to pray about it.

As she sat in her pew that day, Deborah suddenly lost the use of her arm. She was having a stroke. She might have died except for the quick thinking of her nine-year-old grandson, Davon, who noticed what was happening and quickly got the car started so Deborah’s husband, Pullum, could drive her to the hospital. Davon sat in the back next to Deborah throughout the drive, keeping her awake by slapping her whenever she closed her eyes. Later, the paramedics said he had probably saved her life.

Deborah ultimately recovered fully from her stroke. With her recovery, she developed a new, more peaceful attitude toward life. She wanted to go back to school, but she did not ultimately have enough money. She decided to focus on her grandchildren, making sure that they would get an education.

Two months after the stroke, Rebecca accompanied Deborah to a church service to see the baptism of Sonny’s newest granddaughter, JaBrea. The service was led by Pullum, who abruptly called Rebecca to the pulpit in the middle of the service. Rebecca had never attended church before, and she tried to refuse—but he would not take no for an answer. He pulled her up to the pulpit and asked her to explain what she had learned about Henrietta Lacks.

Rebecca stood up in front of the congregation and explained about HeLa’s contribution to science. The congregation listened and punctuating the speech with calls of “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!” When she finished, Pullum returned to the microphone and looked at Deborah, saying:

The world gonna know who your mother is. But you and Sonny and the rest of Henrietta’s children, they probably won’t see real benefits from them cells.

Pullum held little JaBrea up for the congregation to see, and he said that she and Henrietta’s other great-grandchildren would know the history of her life. Henrietta’s own children had not benefitted from her contribution to science, but perhaps JaBrea and her cousins would.

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