Ordinarily, when we think of immortality, we think of a single person living forever. In the case of Henrietta Lacks, however, she has not found the secret to eternal life—but her cells have. Yet as in every fairy tale and myth, immortality comes at a cost. The first price to be paid, of course, was Henrietta herself, who died because of the very same aggression that made her tumor cells such ideal candidates for immortality. Henrietta’s death, and the way that her tissues were treated after death, then had huge and costly implications for her family. Her children missed their mother, of course, but they were also shocked, horrified, and confused by the idea that their mother was in some way “immortal.” Their mental health, particularly that of Zakariyya and Deborah, was a quick victim of their mother’s immortality, leading to mental issues like paranoia and anger over the way that the scientific establishment had (they felt) taken their mother away from them.
The mention of Henrietta’s descendants, of course, brings up the question of the financial cost of Henrietta’s immortality. Although the original creator of the HeLa cell line, George Gey, made little money off of his innovation, drug and research companies have since made billions of dollars off of research and inventions that began with experiments on HeLa. Henrietta’s various descendants express their outrage within the book that they are not compensated for their mother’s contributions to society; they believe that they are owed something by the medical establishment, for having essentially given away their mother in exchange for scientific innovation.
The question of cost is a complicated one, because of the question of who really owns a tissue. The fact remains, however, that Henrietta’s cells have cured the world of countless diseases while her family members don’t even have health insurance to buy the drugs that their genetic material helped to create. The Lacks family has paid the cost of Henrietta’s immortality, but has not truly reaped its rewards.
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Immortality and Its Costs Quotes in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
The Lackses challenged everything I thought I knew about faith, science, journalism, and race. Ultimately, this book is the result. It’s not only the story of HeLa cells and Henrietta Lacks, but of Henrietta’s family—particularly Deborah—and their lifelong struggle to make peace with the existence of those cells, and the science that made them possible.
Henrietta’s cells weren’t merely surviving, they were growing with mythological intensity...They kept growing like nothing anyone had ever seen, doubling the numbers every twenty-four hours, stacking hundreds on top of hundreds, accumulating by the millions.
Everything always just about the cells and don’t even worry about her name and was HeLa even a person…You know what I really want? I want to know, what did my mother smell like? For all my life I just don’t know anything, not even little common little things, like what color did she like? Did she like to dance? Did she breastfeed me? Lord, I’d like to know that. But nobody ever say nothing.
Each day, Henrietta’s doctors increased her dose of radiation, hoping it would shrink the tumors and ease the pain until her death. Each day the skin on her abdomen burned blacker and blacker, and the pain grew worse.
Now I don’t know for sure if a spirit got Henrietta or if a doctor did it…but I do know that her cancer wasn’t no regular cancer, cause regular cancer don’t keep on growing after a person die.
Mary’s gaze fell on Henrietta’s feet, and she gasped: Henrietta’s toenails were covered in chipped bright red polish. “When I saw those toenails,” Mary told me later, “I nearly fainted. I thought, Oh jeez, she’s a real person. I started imagining her sitting in her bathroom painting those toenails, and it hit me for the first time that those cells we’d been working with all this time and sending all over the world, they came from a live woman. I’d never thought of it that way.”
Black scientists and technicians, many of them women, used cells from a black woman to help save the lives of millions of Americans, most of them white. And they did so on the same campus—and at the very same time—that state officials were conducting the infamous Tuskegee syphilis studies…
No one told Sonny, Deborah, or Joe what had happened to their mother, and they were afraid to ask…As far as the children knew, their mother was there one day, gone the next.
Can you tell me what my mama’s cells really did?...I know they did something important, but nobody tells us nothing.
John Hopkin didn’t give us no information about anything. That was the bad part. Not the sad part, but the bad part, cause I don’t know if they didn’t give us information because they was making money out of it or if they was just wanting to keep us in the dark about it. I think they made money out of it, cause they were selling her cells all over the world and shipping them for dollars.
You know what is a myth?...Everybody always saying Henrietta Lacks donated those cells. She didn’t donate nothing. They took them and didn’t ask.
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…All those damn people didn’t deserve her help as far as I’m concerned.
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 nothing 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 and Zakariyya stared at the screen like they’d gone into a trance, mouths open, cheeks sagging. It was the closest they’d come to seeing their mother alive since they were babies.
[Deborah] raised the vial and touched it to her lips. “You’re famous,” she whispered, “Just nobody knows it.”
Take one of me and my sister by her and my mother grave…It’ll be the only picture in the world with the three of us almost together.
In that moment…I understood completely how some of the Lackses could believe, without doubt, that Henrietta had been chosen by the Lord to become an immortal being. If you believe the Bible is the literal truth, the immortality of Henrietta’s cells makes perfect sense. Of course they were growing and surviving decades after death, of course they floated through the air, and of course they’d led to cures for diseases and been launched into space. Angels are like that. The Bible tells us so.
This child will someday know that her great-grandmother Henrietta helped the world!...So will that child…and that child…and that child. This is their story now. They need to take hold of it and let it teach them they can change the world too.
Heaven looks just like Clover, Virginia. My mother and I always loved it down there more than anywhere else in the world.