The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Study Guide

Rebecca Skloot

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Deborah's Voice | Summary



Deborah Lacks says people have told about her mother's vital contribution to science; the medicines she takes are a direct result of studies done with the HeLa cells. She also says, "they don't never explain more" and just tell her about all the amazing places the cells have been and what they have done. Deborah doesn't understand how all of this could happen, although she believes her mother would like knowing she has helped people. Even though her mother's cells have done so much for science, she and her family members can't afford healthcare, and this angers her to the point of illness. Now she just wants to find out who her mother really was.


Deborah's voice in this section reveals the limits of the education she received as well as the insensitivity of medical professionals. Doctors are supposed to make sure their patients understand what is happening to them; otherwise patients cannot give informed consent for treatment. But Deborah, like many others—particularly people from impoverished backgrounds and people of color—receives no explanations of complicated concepts. Doctors tell Deborah what they have achieved with the HeLa cells, but they don't tell her how. They expect her to figure it out herself.

Deborah and the rest of the Lacks family are also treated unfairly when it comes to financial issues. Biotechnical companies have made millions of dollars from using the HeLa cells, yet the Lacks family is too poor to afford decent healthcare. This speaks to the lack of respect corporate entities extend to the people behind the products they sell. The HeLa cells came from a real person with a real family, and for the Lacks family to continue to suffer from poor health while others benefit from the cells is a tragedy. However, Deborah's real goal, beyond money or even help with healthcare, is to know who her mother was. She wants to understand her origins. Therefore, this becomes the central goal of Skloot's research.

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