The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: Entry Four (Chapters 25–32)

Within these eight chapters, the story of Rebecca Skloot and the story of the Lacks family finally come together. Skloot travels around Maryland alongside of Deborah Lacks, where she met more of Deborah’s relatives and traveled to Johns Hopkins to see the HeLa cells.

This entry is dedicated to three pieces of dialog that caught my attention. These three quotes beautifully captured the tragedy of how the Lacks family doesn’t receive the recognition and compensation they deserve for Henrietta’s contribution to the entirety of mankind. The first two, which I have grouped together due to their similarity, are from Deborah Lacks and Zakariyya Rahman, Henrietta’s two youngest children. The last is from Christoph Lengauer, who is a researcher that currently works at Johns Hopkins.

“I know my life could be better and I wish it was. When people hear about my mother cells they always say, ‘Oh y’all could be rich! Ya’ll gotta sue John Hopkin, y’all gotta do this and that. But I don’t want that. Truth be told, I can’t get mad at science, because it help people live, and I’d be a mess without it. I’m a walking drugstore! I can’t say nuthin bad about science, but I won’t lie, I would like some health insurance so I don’t got to pay all that money every month for drugs my mother cells probably helped make.”

-Deborah Lacks (page 256)

“Them doctors say her cells is so important and did all this and that to help people. But it didn’t do no good for her, and it don’t do no good for us. If me and my sister need something, we can’t even go see a doctor cause we can’t afford it. Only people that can get any good from my mother cells is the people that got money, and whoever sellin them cells — they get rich off our mother and we got nothing.”

-Zakariyya Rahman (Joe Lacks) (page 247)

These two quotes point out the sad truth about the situation the Lacks family is in. That is, companies are making millions off of the HeLa cells while Henrietta’s family gets nothing. This, at the same time in which they need money for medications that their mother’s cells likely helped to create. Companies, like Microbiological Associates, make millions of dollars every year. In her quote, Deborah Lacks at least realizes that her mother’s contribution helps her every day in the form of medication; but that doesn’t change the fact that she deserves some of the profits made off of her mother’s cells. In Zakariyya’s Quote, he points out how the only people that make money off of HeLa cells are those who already have money, while those who deserve a cut of the profits, yet do not receive it, are those who don’t already have money.

“Whenever we read books about science, it’s always HeLa this and Hela that. Some people know those are the initials of a person, but they don’t know who that person is. That’s important history… I mean you should get the money. At least some of it… Her cells are how it all started. Once there is a cure for cancer, it’s definitely largely because of your mother’s cells… No one knows how to deal with this when it comes to cells today (rights to cells). When your mother got sick, doctors just did what they wanted and patients didn’t ask But nowadays patients want to know what’s going on.”

-Christoph Lengauer (page 247)

In May of 2001, Rebecca Skloot accompanied Deborah and Zakariyya Lacks to visit Johns Hopkins in order to finally see the HeLa cells. There, they met Christoph Lengauer, who was able to turn the Lacks’ fear and distrust for Johns Hopkins on it’s head. Christoph believed that the Lacks family should be recognized publicly for the HeLa cell line, and should be given a cut of the money made off of the cells. Though Christoph alone likely can’t change the fact that the Lacks family won’t recieve any compensation for the cells and he certainly can’t alter how Johns Hopkins never told them about HeLa, Christoph was able to change the attitudes of both Deborah and Zakariyya, showing them that even people at Hopkins felt for the Lacks family and regretted the neglect the Lacks family endured for decades.

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