A doctor tells Deborah that her blood pressure and blood sugar were so high during her trip that she could have had a stroke or heart attack at any moment. Rebecca wonders whether this might be a medical explanation for Deborah’s strange behavior. To avoid stress, Deborah stops going on road trips with Rebecca, but continues to receive frequent reports as Rebecca researches.
Once again we witness the toll that emotional turmoil takes on Deborah’s health. She clearly has a strong mind/body connection, as her anxiety, stress, and depression directly affect her physical health, and vice versa.
Deborah begins spending all of her time planning her speech to the National Foundation for Cancer Research, although she is terrified of getting up on stage. She tells Rebecca one day that she wants to go back to school in order to learn more about what happened to her mother and sister, and she even contemplates becoming a dental assistant or radiation technologist, so she can help cancer patients.
Despite all her problems, Deborah still remains optimistic and altruistic, hoping to help the very patients who are being treated thanks to innovations made possible by HeLa.
Rebecca becomes apprehensive as the conference approaches, worried that Deborah will become ill. Deborah’s brothers, meanwhile, begin telling her not to speak at all and demanding Henrietta’s records. Alfred Jr., Deborah’s son, is charged with attempted murder, and one of Deborah’s nephews ends up in jail as well. Then September 11th strikes. The conference is canceled, and Deborah is distraught.
As happens so often in the Lacks family, catastrophe piles on catastrophe. They seem unable to escape near-constant misfortune, which is made only worse by their poverty.
A few days later, Deborah has a stroke while at church. Her grandson Davon is the first to notice—he starts the engine of her car in order to take her to a fire station down the road, and he keeps her awake in the backseat. The firemen tell him that he saved Deborah’s life.
Skloot’s fears for Deborah’s health, as it turns out, were completely correct. Part of being Henrietta’s daughter also means inheriting some health issues.
The doctors tell Deborah that she will probably recover completely, and Deborah calls Rebecca to let her know what has happened, telling her not to worry and to keep reporting, while also wishing her a happy birthday. Doctors try to educate Deborah about how to become healthier, and she plans to take classes on nutrition and diabetes as well.
Deborah has faced many setbacks, but at this point has hope for the future—a future in which her family gets what it deserves, and in which she herself can work towards being healthier and more successful. At this point it’s clear that the friendship between Rebecca and Deborah is something more lasting than just a work-related relationship.
Deborah’s stroke seems “to ease tension in the family,” and her brothers begin calling her every day. Deborah plans to rest so that she can continue researching with Rebecca, telling the reporter that she’s learned not to be “scared” anymore, and that she wants to learn. Rebecca explains, however, that Deborah simply does not have enough money to go back to school, and indeed she eventually gives up, focusing instead on getting the next generation of Lacks children educated.
Despite Deborah’s can-do attitude, she is simply limited by her circumstances; she cannot even pay her medical bills, let alone for classes. Once again Skloot shows how difficult it is to escape the cycle of poverty, even for those who try their utmost to escape it. Although Skloot does not say this directly, these events yet again make us contemplate how different the Lacks family’s life would have been if they had profited from HeLa.
Two months after Deborah’s stroke, Rebecca goes with the Lackses to see Reverend Pullum baptize Sonny’s granddaughter, JaBrea. Pullum calls on Rebecca to stand by him, and when she refuses, he begins speaking directly to her in front of the congregation, asking her to come up and tell the story of Henrietta. The nervous Rebecca does so, talking about Henrietta as Deborah weeps. Pullum explains that he and Deborah used to be angry at Rebecca, but that they now know that Rebecca will help Lacks children like JaBrea know who their great-grandmother was. He ends his speech with prayer.
This is a vital moment within the narrative, as the Lacks family fully and generously includes Rebecca not only in their celebration, but also in their story. It is a significant episode for Rebecca too, in that it is the first time she has been asked to tell Henrietta’s narrative to outsiders. A melding of both faith and science, the passage is one of the high points of the narrative.