Meanwhile Henrietta has no idea that her cells are growing in a lab. She has returned home, taking her children on trips to Clover and keeping house. While radiation treatments usually have terrible symptoms, no one remembers Henrietta feeling ill. The author describes Henrietta’s beauty, especially noting her well-kept fingernails and toenails, which she always paints red. Sadie describes Henrietta’sfriendly nature. The only person who doesn’t like her is Ethel, the wife of Henrietta’s cousin Galen, who’s jealous because her of her husband’s aggressive attraction to Henrietta.
In this passage, Skloot introduces the important symbols of Henrietta’s perfectly painted nails. Throughout the book, Skloot will return to the image of Henrietta’s red nail polish in order to remind readers of her subject’s humanity. Henrietta was not merely a collection of cells, but a real person with desires, emotions, and experiences.
The author turns her attention to Henrietta’soldest daughter, the mentally impaired Elsie. Before her illness, Henrietta would frequently take Elsie to Clover. As she grew older, however, Elsie began to have accidents. When Henrietta became pregnant with Joe, the couple could no longer care for Elsie. On the advice of doctors, they moved her to the Crownsville State Hospital, which used to be known as the “Hospital for the Negro Insane.” Cousins describe Henrietta’s grief at sending Elsie away, and recall her weekly visits to the institution to visit her daughter.
As we learn about Elsie, we come to understand that Henrietta and the Lackses had experienced great tragedy in their lives even before Henrietta contracted cervical cancer. Crownsville will become a vital symbol, not simply of the Lacks family’s misfortunes, but of the institutionalized racism that African-American patients—including both Henrietta and Elsie—faced during this time.
While Henrietta’schildren behave when she’s in the house, Lawrence runs wild when she’s gone, going down to a dangerous pier to dive with his friends. If Henrietta ever catches him, she whips him on the spot. Sadie describes the whippings, noting Henrietta’s toughness and fearlessness.
We begin to learn more about Henrietta as a mother, more fully fleshing out our image of her, and also giving us a glimpse of the terrible consequences for her children that will follow her death.
For six weeks after her first radium treatment, no one in Turner Station knows of Henrietta’sillness. At the appointment for her second radium treatment, the doctors note that the tumor seems to be shrinking. Henrietta starts X-ray therapy, which means that she must visit Hopkins every weekday for a month. In order to make the appointments, Henrietta will need to wait at her cousin Margaret’s house (just a few blocks from Hopkins) for Day to pick her up. Henrietta informs Sadie and Margaret of her illness while they’re on a Ferris wheel at a carnival. She tells them of her cancer and treatment, but reassures them that she’s “fine.”
Henrietta continues to keep her illness a secret, an illustration of the stigma surrounding cancer during this time period. She only reveals her condition to a few select family members, despite the terrible pain it is causing her. This passage is also one of false optimism, as both doctors and Henrietta believe that they have beaten back her cancer. Although this book is a story of scientific triumph, the same medical establishment that makes Henrietta’s cells immortal cannot save Henrietta herself.
The doctors believe that Henrietta is doing better, as the tumor has disappeared from the radium treatments and her cervix looks normal. Two weeks after the second treatment, however, Henrietta begins bleeding heavily and for weeks on end. Nevertheless, she begins X-ray treatments.
As we later learn, Henrietta’s physical suffering comes to deeply haunt both Deborah and Skloot. We remember throughout the narrative that it is only through the terrible pain of Henrietta Lacks that HeLa even exists.
After her treatments, Henrietta walks to Margaret’s, where Day picks her up. Soon enough, Henrietta’s bleeding clears up. At the end of her treatments, however, doctors inform Henrietta that her treatments have left her infertile. Although it is common practice for both Howard Jones and TeLinde to inform patients of this devastating side effect beforehand, Henrietta has slipped through the cracks. She is devastated.
Skloot recounts yet another sin of the medical establishment against Henrietta: they have failed to inform her about the most personal of issues: her ability to have children. Even if their intentions are good overall, the racial bias of the white medical establishment has led them to place less value on keeping Henrietta informed of her own condition.
Three weeks after she begins X-ray therapy, Henrietta begins to feel a painful burning sensation when she urinates. While Day claims that she must have given him her illness, Howard Jones thinks it more likely that Day has given Henrietta gonorrhea. Henrietta’s condition worsens, and she becomes listless. She shows Margaret and Sadie the side effects of her treatment: radiation has turned her abdomen black.
Skloot continues to give more visceral details about Henrietta’s illness, contrasting her suffering with the life and proliferation of her cells.