When Deborah is finally ready to see Henrietta’s cells, Day is too ill to come, Sonny has to work, and Lawrence refuses to go to Johns Hopkins (he is also convinced that Rebecca is being paid by Hopkins). On May 11, 2001, Rebecca escorts Deborah and Zakariyya to Johns Hopkins. They pass the statue ofJesus and head towards Christoph Lengauer’slab. An amiable man in his mid-thirties, Christoph takes the group down to the freezer room to show them where the HeLa cells are stored. He shows them a chamber stacked with thousands of HeLa vials, and Deborah reacts with awe. After Christoph hands her a vial, Deborah tries to warm it between her hands, before whispering, “You’re famous.”
The resonance of the statue of Jesus is clear—the Lacks children are passing the same statue that Henrietta walked by before she received her cancer diagnosis and before HeLa existed. Henrietta’slingering presence is palpable in this passage, especially when Deborah whispers “You’re famous,” reflecting a belief that Henrietta’s spirit lives on in the cells—and indeed, in some ways Henrietta is, literally, immortal.
The group moves on to an incubator where HeLa cells are growing. Using a microscope, Christoph allows Deborah and Zakariyya to look at their mother’s cells multiplying, before explaining basic cell biology to the two. He explains that DNA determined Henrietta’sappearance, as well as her cancer, but adds that Deborah has not inherited the disease from Henrietta. Deborah is shocked to learn that HeLa cells are all cancerous, rather than Henrietta’s regular cells. She watches, amazed, as one of the cells divides. Zakariyya, meanwhile, wonders why Henrietta’s cells aren’t black. Deborah marvels at the cells’ beauty.
In a deeply touching moment, the two Lacks children get to watch their mother’s cells living and multiplying fifty years after their mother herself died. They also finally begin to understand the mechanics behind what has happened to HeLa, thanks to the patient and gentle Christoph Lengauer.
Christoph mentions that he believes Hopkins “screwed up” in the way it treated Henrietta. He tells the shocked Deborah that he believes Henrietta’s story is deeply important, and adds that he understands Zakariyya’sanger. He asserts that the family should get money from HeLa-fueled research. When they leave, Zakariyya thanks both Christoph and Rebecca—Deborah calls it “a miracle.”
Although the Lacks children still have not received an official apology, they both receive some closure in this moment because of Lengauer’s gracious apology. To them, he represents the same medical establishment they have hated for decades—and so his apology means a great deal.