The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Study Guide

Rebecca Skloot

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Part 3, Chapter 32 : "All That's My Mother" (2001) | Summary

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Summary

Skloot takes Zakariyya and Deborah Lacks to see Christoph Lengauer, the cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins who gave Deborah the print of the HeLa cells. He shows them the freezer where the cells are kept and explains researchers have to handle the cells with care so they don't contaminate other cells. He is surprised when Deborah mentions the HeLa contamination in Russia and calls it "a bit of poetic justice." He hands Deborah a vial of the cells, which she warms in her hands. She whispers to the cells, "You're famous. ... Just nobody knows it." Lengauer explains the ventilation system and what culture medium is. Then he shows them HeLa cells under the microscope. He explains the role of DNA in the cells to Deborah, who hasn't understood up to this point what DNA does. Lengauer also tells them the cancer their mother had was a DNA mistake, caused by exposure to HPV, "the genital warts virus." He shares the good news: "children don't inherit those kinds of changes." Deborah is relieved. Lengauer explains that all the HeLa cells are cancer cells, not normal cells.

Deborah and Zakariyya watch the cells divide on the screen, amazed. Lengauer teaches them how to look through the microscope at the cells, and says Johns Hopkins "screwed up" in not telling the family about the HeLa cells. This stuns Deborah; she can't believe a scientist at Johns Hopkins is admitting to such a mistake. Deborah says, "This is my mother. Nobody seem to get that." Lengauer agrees and says Henrietta's identity is an important part of history. He also says the Lackses should get part of the money companies earn from selling them. He gives them his cell phone number and tells them to call him if they have questions. Zakariyya touches him on the back and thanks him; he does the same with Skloot. Then he leaves for his bus. Deborah tells Skloot she has witnessed a miracle.

Analysis

Christoph Lengauer is surprised Deborah knows about the Russian HeLa contamination, but he thinks it's great. Lengauer makes it clear he understands how important it is for Deborah and the rest of the family to have information about their mother's cells; she is their mother, not just a nameless, faceless person. The tendency for scientists to separate themselves from the humanity of the cells and tissues they study has led to children being kept in the dark about their mother's history, which Lengauer says is wrong. He is a scientist with a conscience and shares his gratitude that the cells exist and have helped scientists achieve so much.

Lengauer not only does what Hopkins should have done far earlier, educating the family on how the cells are used, but he also says the family should benefit financially from the cells. It is not fair, he says, for everyone else to be benefiting from them but for the family to have none of those profits. He is the first scientist to express this opinion to the Lackses, which makes them trust him even more.

Lengauer's explanation of how medicine has changed helps Deborah and Zakariyya understand that doctors in the past "just did what they wanted and patients didn't ask." This explanation helps them feel less angry about the situation, and Lengauer's determination to inform and educate them takes away more anger. The "miracle" Deborah mentions is Zakariyya's treating Lengauer with respect and gratitude instead of staying angry. Finally a scientist understands their point of view about the use of their mother's cells and agrees they have been poorly treated by everyone connected with the cells. This display of understanding helps Zakariyya come to terms with the past.

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