The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Study Guide

Rebecca Skloot

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Part 2, Chapter 12 : The Storm (1951) | Summary

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Summary

Henrietta's body is put into the "colored" freezer, and George Gey wants samples from the body. At first Day won't sign an autopsy permission form, but when Gey tells him the tests they run may help the Lacks children someday, Day relents. They take samples from all her organs, leaving the rest of her body intact so the family can have an open-casket funeral. She has tumors all through her body; her official cause of death is uremia—an excess of urea, or amino acids and protein, in the blood—which occurs because a tumor has blocked her bladder. The small white tumors everywhere "looked as if someone had filled her with pearls." Mary Kubicek, in charge of helping to get the samples, sees the chipped nail polish on Henrietta's toes and for the first time becomes aware they are taking samples from "a live woman," "a real person."

The funeral is held a few days later in Clover, and Henrietta is buried in a plain pine box. Rain pours down as her body is driven through Lacks Town to the yard behind the home-house, where Henrietta's mother and other relatives are buried. It takes a while to find an empty spot to bury her because so many graves are unmarked. Sadie cries when the box is opened and she sees the chipped toenail polish. As Henrietta's cousins Cliff and Fred lower the box into the grave and begin to bury it, a huge storm blows up, so violent it "ripped trees from the ground, blew power lines out for miles," and pulls up a Lacks cousin's house; the house then lands on him and kills him. Henrietta's cousin Peter later says the storm was Henrietta telling the family something.

Analysis

George Gey is neither open nor honest when he tries to convince Day to signs an autopsy permission form. Gey says the tests doctors will run on Henrietta will help Day's children, but he never says how they will help. In fact he doesn't plan to run any tests. He simply wants to culture more cells from other parts of Henrietta's body, but he can't do so unless he gets permission for an autopsy. He does determine Henrietta's cause of death, but given the status of her bladder, this was hardly a mystery. The autopsy is just another way to exploit Henrietta and the Lacks family without their knowledge. Day doesn't know what he is agreeing to when he signs the autopsy permission; the truth is that none of his children can benefit from it. No test will help them avoid the disease that killed their mother because her cancer isn't hereditary. Gey's false promises again show the cavalier treatment poor black people can expect during this period.

Mary Kubicek realizes Henrietta is a real person—and the person from whom the HeLa cells are taken—only when she sees Henrietta's chipped nail polish; the polish also makes Sadie cry at Henrietta's funeral. The polish symbolizes how well Henrietta took care of herself; the chips show she lost control of what made her Henrietta.

Cootie yells at the storm that begins during Henrietta's burial; he tells it to leave her alone. But other cousins think the storm is Henrietta talking, telling everyone she is unhappy about what happened to her. Never one for subtlety, she whips up a major storm.

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