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[2 of 5] The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Chapters 8-15, by Rebecca Skloot (2010)

Author: Rebecca Skloot

“Chapters 8-15.” The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, Broadway Paperbacks, an Imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a Division of Random House, Inc., 2011.

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8 – “A Miserable Specimen” (1951)

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In early June, Henrietta told her doctors several times that she thought the cancer was spreading, that she could feel it moving through her, but they found nothing wrong with her. “The patient states that she feels fairly well,” one doctor wrote in her chart, “however she continues to complain of some vague lower abdominal discomfort. … No evidence of recurrence. Return in one month.”

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Feb 22
Elizabeth C (Feb 22 2021 11:00PM) : Each time there is a doctor's entry she directly quotes it. Giving credibility to her research and to her as the narrator of the story.
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There’s no indication that Henrietta questioned him; like most patients in the 1950s, she deferred to anything her doctors said. This was a time when “benevolent deception” was a common practice—doctors often withheld even the most fundamental information from their patients, sometimes not giving them any diagnosis at all. They believed it was best not to con-fuse or upset patients with frightening terms they might not understand, like cancer. Doctors knew best, and most patients didn’t question that.

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Especially black patients in public wards. This was 1951 in Baltimore, segregation was law, and it was understood that black people didn’t question white people’s professional judgment. Many black patients were just glad to be getting treatment, since discrimination in hospitals was widespread.

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There’s no way of knowing whether or how Henrietta’s treatment would have differed if she’d been white. According to Howard Jones, Henrietta got the same care any white patient would have; the biopsy, the radium treatment, and radiation were all standard for the day. But several studies have shown that black patients were treated and hospitalized at later stages of their illnesses than white patients. And once hospitalized, they got fewer pain medications, and had higher mortality rates.

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All we can know for sure are the facts of Henrietta’s medical records: a few weeks after the doctor told her she was fine, she went back to Hopkins saying that the “discomfort” she’d complained about last time was now an “ache” in both sides. But the doctor’s entry was identical to the one weeks earlier: “No evidence of recurrence. Return in one month.”

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Two and a half weeks later, Henrietta’s abdomen hurt, and she could barely urinate. The pain made it hard to walk. She went back to Hopkins, where a doctor passed a catheter to empty her bladder, then sent her home. Three days later, when she returned complaining once again of pain, a doctor pressed on her abdomen and felt a “stony hard” mass. An X-ray showed that it was attached to her pelvic wall, nearly blocking her urethra. The doctor on duty called for Jones and several others who’d treated Henrietta; they all examined her and looked at the X-ray. “Inoperable,” they said. Only weeks after a previous entry declared her healthy, one of the doctors wrote, “The patient looks chronically ill. She is obviously in pain.” He sent her home to bed.

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Sadie would later describe Henrietta’s decline like this: “Hennie didn’t fade away, you know, her looks, her body, it didn’t just fade. Like some peoples be sick in the bed with cancer and they look so bad. But she didn’t. The only thing you could tell was in her eyes. Her eyes were tellin you that she wasn’t gonna be alive no more.”

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Elizabeth C (Feb 22 2021 11:03PM) : In this paragraph the author's text reads as if Sadie was actually saying it, all the grammatical errors included. I think this helps show that she is trying to tell us a story about a real person and their relationships with people.
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Until that point, no one except Sadie, Margaret, and Day knew Henrietta was sick. Then, sud-denly, everyone knew. When Day and the cousins walked home from Sparrows Point after each shift, they could hear Henrietta from a block away, wailing for the Lord to help her. When Day drove her back to Hopkins for X-rays the following week, stone-hard tumors filled the in-side of her abdomen: one on her uterus, one on each kidney and on her urethra. Just a month after a note in her medical record said she was fine, another doctor wrote, “In view of the rap-id extension of the disease process the outlook is quite poor.” The only option, he said, was “further irradiation in the hopes that we may at least relieve her pain.”

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Henrietta couldn’t walk from the house to the car, but either Day or one of the cousins managed to get her to Hopkins every day for radiation. They didn’t realize she was dying. They thought the doctors were still trying to cure her.

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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.

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On August 8, just one week after her thirty-first birthday, Henrietta arrived at Hopkins for her treatment, but this time she said she wanted to stay. Her doctor wrote, “Patient has been complaining bitterly of pain and she seems genuinely miserable. She has to come in from a considerable distance and it is felt that she deserves to be in the hospital where she can be better cared for.”

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After Henrietta checked into the hospital, a nurse drew blood and labeled the vial COLORED, then stored it in case Henrietta needed transfusions later. A doctor put Henrietta’s feet in stirrups once again, to take a few more cells from her cervix at the request of George Gey, who wanted to see if a second batch would grow like the first. But Henrietta’s body had become so contaminated with toxins normally flushed from the system in urine, her cells died immediately in culture.

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During Henrietta’s first few days in the hospital, the children came with Day to visit her, but when they left, she cried and moaned for hours. Soon the nurses told Day he couldn’t bring the children anymore, because it upset Henrietta too much. After that, Day would park the Buick behind Hopkins at the same time each day and sit on a little patch of grass on Wolfe Street with the children, right under Henrietta’s window. She’d pull herself out of bed, press her hands and face to the glass, and watch her children play on the lawn. But within days, Henrietta couldn’t get herself to the window anymore.

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Her doctors tried in vain to ease her suffering. “Demerol does not seem to touch the pain,” one wrote, so he tried morphine. “This doesn’t help too much either.” He gave her Dromoran. “This stuff works,” he wrote. But not for long. Eventually one of her doctors tried injecting pure alcohol straight into her spine. “Alcohol injections ended in failure,” he wrote.

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New tumors seemed to appear daily—on her lymph nodes, hip bones, labia—and she spent most days with a fever up to 105. Her doctors stopped the radiation treatment and seemed as defeated by the cancer as she was. “Henrietta is still a miserable specimen,” they wrote. “She groans.” “She is constantly nauseated and claims she vomits everything she eats.” “Patient acutely upset… very anxious.” “As far as I can see we are doing all that can be done.”

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There is no record that George Gey ever visited Henrietta in the hospital, or said anything to her about her cells. And everyone I talked to who might know said that Gey and Henrietta never met. Everyone, that is, except Laure Aurelian, a microbiologist who was Gey’s col-league at Hopkins.

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Feb 22
Elizabeth C (Feb 22 2021 11:05PM) : This is almost contradictory because the main portion of this book so far is how Henrietta didn't know that her cells were taken. This offers another point of view.
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“I’ll never forget it,” Aurelian said. “George told me he leaned over Henrietta’s bed and said, ‘Your cells will make you immortal.’ He told Henrietta her cells would help save the lives of countless people, and she smiled. She told him she was glad her pain would come to some good for someone.”

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Feb 23
Sam F (Feb 23 2021 10:29AM) : Worth The Pain more

Chapter Eight is really just an in-depth account of the terrible pain experienced by Henrietta Lacks in her last days. Excruciating, immobilizing, even deadly. Her anguish is explained in earnest, and Skloot is sure to go into depth about the attempts, or rather lack thereof, at treating her pain. This can be juxtaposed with the one positive moment in the chapter, wherein Henrietta is quoted as happy that her pain may be worth it. The differences in description are meant to juxtapose her experience with that of its eventual effects.

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9 – Turner Station (1999)

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A few days after my first conversation with Day, I drove from Pittsburgh to Baltimore to meet his son, David “Sonny” Lacks Jr. He’d finally called me back and agreed to meet, saying he’d gotten worn out from my number showing up on his pager. I didn’t know it then, but he’d made five panicked phone calls to Pattillo, asking questions about me before calling.

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The plan was that I’d page Sonny when I got to Baltimore, then he’d pick me up and take me to his brother Lawrence’s house to meet their father and—if I was lucky—Deborah. So I checked in to the downtown Holiday Inn, sat on the bed, phone in my lap, and dialed Sonny’s pager. No reply.

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I stared through my hotel room window at a tall, Gothic-looking brick tower across the street with a huge clock at the top. It was a weatherbeaten silver, with big letters spelling B-R-O-M-O-S-E-L-T-Z-E-R in a circle around its face. I watched the hands move slowly past the letters, paged Sonny every few minutes, and waited for the phone to ring.

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Eventually I grabbed the fat Baltimore phone book, opened to the Ls, and ran my finger down a long line of names: Annette Lacks … Charles Lacks … I figured I’d call every Lacks in the book asking if they knew Henrietta. But I didn’t have a cell phone and didn’t want to tie up the line, so I paged Sonny again, then lay back on the bed, phone and White Pages still in my lap. I started rereading a yellowed copy of a 1976 Rolling Stone article about the Lackses by a writer named Michael Rogers—the first reporter ever to contact Henrietta’s family. I’d read it many times, but wanted every word fresh in my mind.

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Halfway through the article, Rogers wrote, “I am sitting on the seventh floor of the down-town Baltimore Holiday Inn. Through the thermopane picture window is a huge public clock in which the numerals have been replaced by the characters B-R-O-M-O-S-E-L-T-Z-E-R; in my lap is a telephone, and the Baltimore White Pages.”

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2021 Milo H (Feb 23 2021 7:46AM) : In this paragraph, Skloot has a moment of Deja vu, reading this article from over 20 years ago, yet seemingly being in the exact same location and situation as the author Michael Rogers.
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I bolted upright, suddenly feeling like I’d been sucked into a Twilight Zone episode. More than two decades earlier—when I was just three years old—Rogers had gone through those same White Pages. “Half way through the ‘Lacks’ listings it becomes clear that just about everybody had known Henrietta,” he wrote. So I opened the phone book again and started dialing, hoping I’d find one of those people who knew her. But they didn’t answer their phones, they hung up on me, or they said they’d never heard of Henrietta. I dug out an old newspaper article where I’d seen Henrietta’s Turner Station address: 713 New Pittsburgh Avenue. I looked at four maps before finding one where Turner Station wasn’t covered by ads or blow-up grids of other neighborhoods.

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It turned out Turner Station wasn’t just hidden on the map. To get there, I had to drive past the cement wall and fence that blocked it from the interstate, across a set of tracks, past churches in old storefronts, rows of boarded-up houses, and a buzzing electrical generator as big as a football field. Finally I saw a dark wooden sign saying WELCOME TO TURNERS STATION in the parking lot of a fire-scorched bar with pink tasseled curtains.

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To this day no one’s entirely sure what the town is actually called, or how to spell it. Some-times it’s plural (Turners Station), other times possessive (Turner’s Station), but most often it’s singular (Turner Station). It was originally deeded as “Good Luck,” but never quite lived up to the name.

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When Henrietta arrived there in the forties, the town was booming. But the end of World War II brought cutbacks at Sparrows Point. Baltimore Gas and Electric demolished three hundred homes to make room for a new power plant, leaving more than 1,300 homeless, most of them black. More and more land was zoned for industrial use, which meant more houses torn down. People fled for East Baltimore or back to the country, and the population of Turner Station dropped by half before the end of the fifties. By the time I got there, it was about one thousand and falling steadily, because there were few jobs.

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In Henrietta’s day, Turner Station was a town where you never locked your doors. Now there was a housing project surrounded by a 13,000-foot-long brick-and-cement security wall in the field where Henrietta’s children once played. Stores, nightclubs, cafés, and schools had closed, and drug dealers, gangs, and violence were on the rise. But Turner Station still had more than ten churches.

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The newspaper article where I’d gotten Henrietta’s address quoted a local woman, Courtney Speed, who owned a grocery store and had created a foundation devoted to building a Henrietta Lacks museum. But when I got to the lot where Speed’s Grocery was supposed to be, I found a gray, rust-stained mobile home, its broken windows covered with wire. The sign out front had a single red rose painted on it, and the words REVIVING THE SPIRIT TO RE-CAPTURE THE VISION. PROVERBS 29:18. Six men gathered on the front steps, laughing. The oldest, in his thirties, wore red slacks, red suspenders, a black shirt, and a driving cap. Another wore an oversized red and white ski jacket. They were surrounded by younger men of various shades of brown in sagging pants. The two men in red stopped talking, watchedme drive by slowly, then kept on laughing.

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Turner Station is less than a mile across in any direction, its horizon lined with sky-scraper-sized shipping cranes and smokestacks billowing thick clouds from Sparrows Point. As I drove in circles looking for Speed’s Grocery, children stopped playing in the streets to stare and wave. They ran between matching red-brick houses and past women hanging fresh laundry, following me as their mothers smiled and waved too.

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I drove by the trailer with the men out front so many times, they started waving at me with each pass. I did the same with Henrietta’s old house. It was a unit in a brown brick building divided into four homes, with a chain-link fence, several feet of grass out front, and three steps leading up to a small cement stoop. A child watched me from behind Henrietta’s old screen door, waving and playing with a stick.

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I waved back at everyone and feigned surprise each time the group of children following me appeared on various streets grinning, but I didn’t stop and ask for help. I was too nervous. The people of Turner Station just watched me, smiling and shaking their heads like, What’s that young white girl doing driving around in circles?

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Finally I saw the New Shiloh Baptist Church, which the newspaper article had mentioned as the site of community meetings about the Henrietta Lacks museum. But it was closed. As I pressed my face to the tall glass out front, a black town car pulled up, and a smooth, hand-some man in his forties jumped out, with gold-tinted glasses, black suit, black beret, and the keys to the church. He slid his glasses to the end of his nose and looked me over, asking if I needed help.

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I told him why I was there.

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“Never heard of Henrietta Lacks,” he said.

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“Not many people have,” I said, and told him I’d read that someone had hung a plaque in Henrietta’s honor at Speed’s Grocery.

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“Oh! Speed’s?” he said, suddenly all smiles and a hand on my shoulder. “I can take you to Speed’s!” He told me to get in my car and follow him.

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Everyone on the street waved and yelled as we passed: “Hi Reverend Jackson!” “How you doin, Reverend?” He nodded and yelled right back, “How you doin!” “God bless you!” Just two blocks away, we stopped in front of that gray trailer with the men out front and the Reverend jammed his car into park, waving for me to get out. The cluster of men on the steps smiled, grabbed the pastor’s hand, and gave it two-handed shakes, saying, “Hey Reverend, you brought a friend?”

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“Yes I did,” he told them. “She’s here to talk to Ms. Speed.”

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The one in the red pants and red suspenders—who turned out to be Speed’s oldest son, Keith—said she was out, and who knew when she’d be back, so I may as well grab a seat on the porch with the boys and wait. As I sat down, the man in the red and white ski jacket smiled a big bright smile, then told me he was her son Mike. Then there were her sons Cyrus and Joe and Tyrone. Every man on that porch was her son; so was nearly every man that walked in the store. Pretty soon, I’d counted fifteen sons and said, “Wait a minute. She’s got fifteen kids?”

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“Oh!” Mike yelled. “You don’t know Mama Speed, do you?! Oooh, I look up to Mama—she tough! She keep Turners Station in line, boy! She fears no man!”

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Feb 23
Josh I (Feb 23 2021 2:14PM) : Here talks about what people thought of Speed referring to her as mama and how she is tough [Edited]
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The men on the porch all nodded and said, “That’s right.”

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“Don’t you get scared if anybody come in here try to attack Mama when we’re not around,” Mike said, “cause she’ll scare them to death!” Speed’s sons let out a chorus of amens as Mike told a story, saying, “This man came in the store once yellin, ‘I’m gonna come cross that counter and get you.’ I was hidin behind Mama I was so scared! And do you know what Mama did? She rocked her head and raised up them arms and said, ‘Come on! Come on-nnnnn! If you think you crazy, you just try it!’

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Mike slapped me on the back and all the sons laughed.

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At that moment, Courtney Speed appeared at the bottom of the steps, her long black hair piled loose on her head, strands hanging in wisps around her face, which was thin, beautiful, and entirely ageless. Her eyes were soft brown with a perfect halo of sea blue around the edges. She was delicate, not a hard edge on her. She hugged a grocery bag to her chest and whispered, “But did that man jump across that counter at me?”

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Feb 23
Josh I (Feb 23 2021 1:55PM) : Introduced to Courtney Speed more

Here we are first introduced to speed and the author writes her in a very uplifting form describing her we angelic like pronouns

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Mike screamed and laughed so hard he couldn’t answer.

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She looked at him, calm and smiling. “I said, Did that man jump?”

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“No, he did not!” Mike said, grinning. “That man didn’t do nuthin but run! That’s why Mama got no gun in this store. She don’t need one!”

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Feb 23
2021 Milo H (Feb 23 2021 7:49AM) : Rebecca Skloot preserves the speech of those she interviews by writing in phonetic dialect.
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“I don’t live by the gun,” she said, then turned to me and smiled. “How you doin?” She walked up the stairs into the store, and we all followed.

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“Mama,” Keith said, “Pastor brought this woman in here. She’s Miss Rebecca and she’s here to talk to you.”

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Courtney Speed smiled a beautiful, almost bashful smile, her eyes bright and motherly. “God bless you, sweetie,” she said.

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Inside, flattened cardboard boxes covered most of the floor, which was worn from years of foot traffic. Shelves lined each wall, some bare, others stacked with Wonder Bread, rice, toilet paper, and pigs’ feet. On one, Speed had piled hundreds of editions of the Baltimore Sun dating back to the 1970s, when her husband died. She said she’d given up replacing the windows each time someone broke in because they’d just do it again. She’d hung handwritten signs on every wall of the store: one for “Sam the Man Snowballs,” others for sports clubs, church groups, and free GED and adult literacy classes. She had dozens of “spiritual sons,” who she treated no different than her six bio logical sons. And when any child came in to buy chips, candy, or soda, Speed made them calculate how much change she owed them—they got a free Hershey’s kiss for each correct answer.

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Feb 23
2021 Milo H (Feb 23 2021 7:52AM) : Skloot writes of the imagery of the trailer store, and how worn down it is, yet still functional, along with the caring character of Ms. Speed.
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Speed started straightening the items on her shelves so each label faced out, then yelled over her shoulder at me, “How did you find your way here?”

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I told her about the four maps, and she threw a box of lard onto the shelf. “Now we got the four-map syndrome,” she said. “They keep trying to push us off the earth, but God won’t let them. Praise the Lord, he brings us the people we really need to talk to.”

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She wiped her hands on her white shirt. “Now that He brought you here, what can I do for you?”

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“I’m hoping to learn about Henrietta Lacks,” I said.

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Courtney gasped, her face suddenly ashen. She took several steps back and hissed, “You know Mr. Cofield? Did he send you?”

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Feb 23
Josh I (Feb 23 2021 1:57PM) : We suddenly see a change in Courtney and she becomes defensive
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I was confused. I told her I’d never heard of Cofield, and no one had sent me. “How did you know about me?” she snapped, backing away further.

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I pulled the old crumpled newspaper article from my purse and handed it to her. “Have you talked to the family?” she asked.

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“I’m trying,” I said. “I talked to Deborah once, and I was supposed to meet Sonny today, but he didn’t show up.”

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She nodded, like I knew it. “I can’t tell you anything until you got the support of the family. I can’t risk that.”

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“What about the plaque you got for the museum?” I asked. “Can I see that?”

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“It’s not here,” she snapped. “Nothing’s here, because bad things happened around all that.”

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She looked at me for a long moment, then her face softened. She took my hand in one of hers, and touched my face with the other.

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“I like your eyes,” she said. “Come with me.”

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She hurried out the door and down the stairs to her old brown station wagon. A man sat in the passenger seat, staring straight at the road as if the car were moving. He didn’t look up as she jumped in, saying, “Follow me.”

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We drove through Turner Station to the parking lot of the local public library. As I opened my car door, Courtney appeared, clapping, grinning, and bouncing on her tiptoes. Words erupted from her: “February first is Henrietta Lacks day here in Baltimore County,” she said. “This February first is going to be the big kickoff event here at the library! We’re still trying to put a museum together, even though the Cofield situation did cause so many problems. Terrified Deborah. We were supposed to be almost done with the museum by now—we were so close before all that horribleness. But I’m glad He sent you,” she said, pointing to the sky. “This story just got to be told! Praise the Lord, people got to know about Henrietta!”

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“Who’s Cofield?” I asked.

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She cringed and slapped her hand over her mouth. “I really can’t talk until the family says it’s okay,” she said, then grabbed my hand and ran into the library.

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Feb 23
Josh I (Feb 23 2021 1:58PM) : Speed is protecting and respecting the family by not talking about it until she has permission

“This is Rebecca,” she told the librarian, bouncing on her toes again. “She’s writing about Henrietta Lacks!”

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“Oh, that’s wonderful!” the librarian said. Then she looked at Courtney. “Are you talking to her?”

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“I need the tape,” Courtney said.

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The librarian walked down a row of videos, pulled a white box from the shelf, and handed it to her.

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Courtney tucked the video under her arm, grabbed my hand, and ran me back to the parking lot, where she jumped into her car and sped off, waving for me to follow. We stopped out-side a convenience store while the man in her front seat got out and bought a loaf of bread. Then we dropped him off in front of his house as Courtney yelled back to me, “He’s my deaf cousin! Can’t drive!”

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Finally she led me to a small beauty parlor she owned, not far from Speed’s Grocery. She unlocked two bolts on the front door and waved her hand in the air, saying, “Smells like I got a mouse in one of those traps.” The shop was narrow, with barber chairs lining one wall and dryers along the other. The hair-washing sink, propped up with a piece of plywood, drained into a large white bucket, the walls around it splattered with years’ worth of hair dye. Next to the sink sat a price board: Cut and style ten dollars. Press and curl, seven. And against the back wall, on top of a supply cabinet, sat a photocopy of the picture of Henrietta Lacks, hands on hips, in a pale wood frame several inches too big.

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I pointed to the photo and raised my eyebrows. Courtney shook her head.

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“I’ll tell you everything I know,” she whispered, “just as soon as you talk to the family and they say it’s okay. I don’t want any more problems. And I don’t want Deborah to get sick over it again.”

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Feb 23
Josh I (Feb 23 2021 1:59PM) : alludes to other problems in the past because she says any more
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She pointed to a cracked red vinyl barber’s chair, which she spun to face a small television next to the hair dryers. “You have to watch this tape,” she said, handing me the remote and a set of keys. She started to walk out the door, then turned. “Don’t you open this door for nothing or nobody but me, you hear?” she said. “And don’t you miss nothing in that video—use that rewind button, watch it twice if you have to, but don’t you miss nothing.” Then she left, locking the door behind her.

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Feb 23
Josh I (Feb 23 2021 2:00PM) : Speed stresses the importance of the video and the details of it
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What rolled in front of me on that television screen was a one-hour BBC documentary about Henrietta and the HeLa cells, called The Way of All Flesh, which I’d been trying to get a copy of for months. It opened to sweet music and a young black woman who wasn’t Henrietta, dancing in front of the camera. A British man began narrating, his voice melodramatic, like he was telling a ghost story that just might be true.

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“In 1951 a woman died in Baltimore in America,” he said, pausing for effect. “She was called Henrietta Lacks.” The music grew louder and more sinister as he told the story of her cells: “These cells have transformed modern medicine. … They shaped the policies of countries and of presidents. They even became involved in the Cold War. Because scientists were convinced that in her cells lay the secret of how to conquer death….”

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What really grabbed me was footage of Clover, an old plantation town in southern Virginia, where some of Henrietta’s relatives still seemed to live. The last image to appear on the screen was Henrietta’s cousin Fred Garret, standing behind an old slave shack in Clover, his back to the family cemetery where the narrator said Henrietta lay buried in an unmarked grave.

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Fred pointed to the cemetery and looked hard into the camera.

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“Do you think them cells still livin?” he asked. “I talkin bout in the grave.” He paused, then laughed a long, rumbling laugh. “Hell naw,” he said, “I don’t guess they are. But they’re still livin out in the test tubes. That’s a miracle.”

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The screen went blank and I realized, if Henrietta’s children and husband wouldn’t talk to me, I needed to visit Clover and find her cousins.

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That night, back at the hotel, I finally got Sonny on the phone. He said he’d decided not to meet me but wouldn’t tell me why. When I asked him to put me in touch with his family in Clover, he told me to go there and find them myself. Then he laughed and wished me luck.

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Feb 23
Josh I (Feb 23 2021 2:02PM) : another sort of allusion about finding the family

10 – The Other Side of the Tracks (1999)

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Clover sits a few rolling hills off Route 360 in southern Virginia, just past Difficult Creek on the banks of the River of Death. I pulled into town under a blue December sky, with air warm enough for May, a yellow Post-it note with the only information Sonny had given me stuck on my dashboard: “They haven’t found her grave. Make sure it’s day—there are no lights, gets darker than dark. Ask anybody where Lacks Town is.”

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Downtown Clover started at a boarded-up gas station with RIP spray-painted across its front, and ended at an empty lot that once held the depot where Henrietta caught her train to Baltimore. The roof of the old movie theater on Main Street had caved in years ago, its screen landing flat in a field of weeds. The other businesses looked like someone left for lunch decades earlier and never bothered coming back: one wall of Abbott’s clothing store was lined with boxes of new Red Wing work boots stacked to the ceiling and covered in thick dust; inside its long glass counter, beneath an antique cash register, lay rows and rows of men’s dress shirts, still folded starch-stiff in their plastic. The lounge at Rosie’s restaurant was filled with overstuffed chairs, couches, and shag carpet, all in dust-covered browns, oranges, and yellows. A sign in the front window said OPEN 7 DAYS, just above one that said CLOSED. At Gregory and Martin Super Market, half-full shop ping carts rested in the aisles next to decades-old canned foods, and the wall clock hadn’t moved past 6:34 since Martin closed up shop to become an undertaker sometime in the eighties.

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Feb 23
Sarah J (Feb 23 2021 1:52PM) : In this line, the author uses imagery to depict the scene and hint that the area is old and beaten down.
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Even with kids on drugs and the older generation dying off, Clover didn’t have enough death to keep an undertaker in business: in 1974 it had a population of 227; in 1998 it was 198. That same year, Clover lost its town charter. It did still have several churches and a few beauty parlors, but they were rarely open. The only steady business left downtown was the one-room brick post office, but it was closed when I got there.

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Feb 23
Sarah J (Feb 23 2021 1:55PM) : Skloot references the infamous War on Drugs to exemplify that Clover's population was still relatively small.
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Main Street felt like a place where you could sit for hours without seeing a pedestrian or a car. But a man stood in front of Rosie’s, leaning against his red motorized bicycle, waiting to wave at any cars that might pass. He was a short, round white man with red cheeks who could have been anywhere from fifty to seventy. Locals called him the Greeter, and he’d spent most of his life on that corner waving at anyone who drove by, his face expressionless. I asked if he could direct me to Lacks Town, where I planned to look for mailboxes with the name Lacks on them, then knock on doors asking about Henrietta. The man never said a word, just waved at me, then slowly pointed behind him, across the tracks.

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Feb 23
Sarah J (Feb 23 2021 1:57PM) : The author uses hyperbole, by exaggerating the quietness of the town even on Main Street, a street that should continuously be busy.
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The dividing line between Lacks Town and the rest of Clover was stark. On one side of the two-lane road from downtown, there were vast, well-manicured rolling hills, acres and acres of wide-open property with horses, a small pond, a well-kept house set back from the road, a minivan, and a white picket fence. Directly across the street stood a small one-room shack about seven feet wide and twelve feet long; it was made of unpainted wood, with large gaps between the wallboards where vines and weeds grew.

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That shack was the beginning of Lacks Town, a single road about a mile long and lined with dozens of houses—some painted bright yellows or greens, others unpainted, half caved-in or nearly burnt-down. Slave-era cabins sat next to cinder-block homes and trailers, some with satellite dishes and porch swings, others rusted and half buried. I drove the length of Lacks Town Road again and again, past the END OF STATE MAINTENANCE sign where the road turned to gravel, past a tobacco field with a basketball court in it—just a patch of red dirt and a bare hoop attached to the top of a weathered tree trunk.

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Feb 23
Sarah J (Feb 23 2021 1:58PM) : The author uses imagery, again, to depict the poor-looking town.
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Feb 23
Micah W (Feb 23 2021 10:18AM) : Explains that the area was very poor and run down.
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The muffler on my beat-up black Honda had fallen off somewhere between Pittsburgh and Clover, which meant everyone in Lacks Town heard each time I passed. They walked onto porches and peered through windows as I drove by. Finally, on my third or fourth pass, a man who looked like he was in his seventies shuffled out of a green two-room wooden cabin wear-ing a bright green sweater, a matching scarf, and a black driving cap. He waved a stiff arm at me, eyebrows raised.

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“You lost?” he yelled over my muffler.

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Feb 23
Micah W (Feb 23 2021 10:13AM) : Introduction to Cootie.
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I rolled down my window and said not exactly.

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“Well where you tryin to go?” he said. “Cause I know you’re not from around here.” I asked him if he’d heard of Henrietta.

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He smiled and introduced himself as Cootie, Henrietta’s first cousin.

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Feb 23
Micah W (Feb 23 2021 10:13AM) : Cootie's introduction
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His real name was Hector Henry—people started calling him Cootie when he got polio decades earlier; he was never sure why. Cootie’s skin was light enough to pass for Latino, so when he got sick at nine years old, a local white doctor snuck him into the nearest hospital, saying Cootie was his son, since the hospitals didn’t treat black patients. Cootie spent a year inside an iron lung that breathed for him, and he’d been in and out of hospitals ever since.

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Feb 23
Micah W (Feb 23 2021 6:04AM) : This shows that Cootie has a lack of understanding of western culture and is unaware of the word "cootie" and its origin.
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The polio had left him partially paralyzed in his neck and arms, with nerve damage that caused constant pain. He wore a scarf regardless of the weather, because the warmth helped ease the pain.

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Feb 23
Micah W (Feb 23 2021 10:14AM) : Describes how Cootie will likely look an act based on this previous disease.
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Feb 23
Micah W (Feb 23 2021 6:03AM) : Describes character's look and actions. Useful information to know.

I told him why I was there, and he pointed up and down the road. “Everybody in Lacks Town kin to Henrietta, but she been gone so long, even her memory pretty much dead now,” he said. “Everything about Henrietta dead except them cells.”

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Feb 23
Micah W (Feb 23 2021 10:15AM) : Henrietta Lacks, despite being family with everyone in the town, has nearly been forgotten, despite the town having her last name, despite the fact that she has the most famous cells in the world.
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He pointed to my car. “Turn this loud thing off and come inside. I’ll fix you some juice.”

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His front door opened into a tiny kitchen with a coffeemaker, a vintage toaster, and an old wood stove with two cooking pots on top, one empty, the other filled with chili. He’d painted the kitchen walls the same dark olive green as the outside, and lined them with power strips and fly swatters. He’d recently gotten indoor plumbing, but still preferred the outhouse.

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Though Cootie could barely move his arms, he’d built the house on his own, teaching him-self construction as he went along, hammering the plywood walls and plastering the inside. But he’d forgotten to use insulation, so soon after he finished it, he tore down the walls and started over again. A few years after that, the whole place burned down when he fell asleep under an electric blanket, but he built it back up again. The walls were a bit crooked, he said, but he’d used so many nails, he didn’t think it would ever fall down.

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Cootie handed me a glass of red juice and shooed me out of the kitchen into his dark, wood-paneled living room. There was no couch, just a few metal folding chairs and a barber’s chair anchored to the linoleum floor, its cushions covered entirely with duct tape. Cootie had been the Lacks Town barber for decades. “That chair cost twelve hundred dollars now, but I got it for eight dollars back then,” he yelled from the kitchen. “Haircut wasn’t but a dollar—sometimes I cut fifty-eight heads in one day.” Eventually he quit because he couldn’t hold his arms up long enough to cut.

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A small boom box leaned against one wall blaring a gospel call-in show, with a preacher screaming something about the Lord curing a caller of hepatitis.

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Cootie opened a folding chair for me, then walked into his bedroom. He lifted his mattress with one arm, propped it on his head, and began rummaging through piles of paper hidden beneath it.

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“I know I got some information on Henrietta in here somewhere,” he mumbled from under the mattress. “Where the hell I put that… You know other countries be buying her for twenty-five dollars, sometimes fifty? Her family didn’t get no money out of it.”

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After digging through what looked like hundreds of papers, he came back to the living room.

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“This here the only picture I got of her,” he said, pointing to a copy of the Rolling Stone article with the ever-present hands-on-hips photo. “I don’t know what it say. Only education I got, I had to learn on my own. But I always couldn’t count, and I can’t hardly read or write my name cause my hand’s so jittery.” He asked if the article said anything about her childhood in Clover. I shook my head no.

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Feb 23
Sarah J (Feb 23 2021 2:02PM) : The author reinforces the idea that the town was so poor that even education was limited.
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“Everybody liked Henrietta cause she was a very good condition person,” he said. “She just lovey dovey, always smilin, always takin care of us when we come to the house. Even after she got sick, she never was a person who say ‘I feel bad and I’m going to take it out on you.’ She wasn’t like that, even when she hurtin. But she didn’t seem to understand what was going on. She didn’t want to think she was gonna die.”

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He shook his head. “You know, they said if we could get all the pieces of her together, she’d weigh over eight hundred pounds now,” he told me. “And Henrietta never was a big girl. She just still growin.”

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In the background, the radio preacher screamed “Hallelujah!” over and over as Cootie spoke.

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“She used to take care of me when my polio got bad,” he told me. “She always did say she wanted to fix it. She couldn’t help me cause I had it before she got sick, but she saw how bad it got. I imagine that’s why she used them cells to help get rid of it for other folk.” He paused. “Nobody round here never understood how she dead and that thing still livin. That’s where the mystery’s at.”

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He looked around the room, nodding his head toward spaces between the wall and ceiling where he’d stuffed dried garlic and onions.

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“You know, a lot of things, they man-made,” he told me, dropping his voice to a whisper. “You know what I mean by man-made, don’t you?”

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I shook my head no.

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“Voodoo,” he whispered. “Some peoples is sayin Henrietta’s sickness and them cells was man-or woman-made, others say it was doctor-made.”

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As he talked, the preacher’s voice on the radio grew louder, saying, “The Lord, He’s gonna help you, but you got to call me right now. If my daughter or sister had cancer! I would get on that phone, cause time’s running out!”

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Cootie yelled over the radio. “Doctors say they never heard of another case like Henri-etta’s! I’m sure it was either man-made or spirit-made, one of the two.”

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Feb 23
Sarah J (Feb 23 2021 2:05PM) : Shows the distrust in Henrietta's doctors.
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Then he told me about spirits in Lacks Town that sometimes visited people’s houses and caused disease. He said he’d seen a man spirit in his house, sometimes leaning against the wall by his wood stove, other times by the bed. But the most dangerous spirit, he told me, was the several-ton headless hog he saw roaming Lacks Town years ago with no tail. Links of broken chain dangled from its bloodstained neck, dragging along dirt roads and clanking as it walked.

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“I saw that thing crossin the road to the family cemetery,” Cootie told me. “That spirit stood right there in the road, its chain swingin and swayin in the breeze.” Cootie said it looked at him and stomped its foot, kicking red dust all around its body, getting ready to charge. Just then, a car came barreling down the road with only one headlight.

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“The car came along, shined a light right on it, I swear it was a hog,” Cootie said. Then the spirit vanished. “I can still hear that chain draggin.” Cootie figured that car saved him from get-ting some new disease.

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“Now I don’t know for sure if a spirit got Henrietta or if a doctor did it,” Cootie said, “but I do know that her cancer wasn’t no regular cancer, cause regular cancer don’t keep on growing after a person die.”

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Feb 22
Micah W (Feb 22 2021 2:40PM) : Shows a lack of trust in western medicine.
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11 – “The Devil of Pain Itself” (1951)

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By September, Henrietta’s body was almost entirely taken over by tumors. They’d grown on her diaphragm, her bladder, and her lungs. They’d blocked her intestines and made her belly swell like she was six months pregnant. She got one blood transfusion after another because her kidneys could no longer filter the toxins from her blood, leaving her nauseated from the poison of her own body. She got so much blood that one doctor wrote a note in her record stopping all transfusions “until her deficit with the blood bank was made up.”

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When Henrietta’s cousin Emmett Lacks heard somebody at Sparrows Point say Henrietta was sick and needed blood, he threw down the steel pipe he was cutting and ran looking for his brother and some friends. They were working men, with steel and asbestos in their lungs and years’ worth of hard labor under their calluses and cracked fingernails. They’d all slept on Henrietta’s floor and eaten her spaghetti when they first came to Baltimore from the country, and anytime money ran low. She’d ridden the streetcar to and from Sparrows Point to make sure they didn’t get lost during their first weeks in the city. She’d packed their lunches until they found their feet, then sent extra food to work with Day so they didn’t go hungry between paychecks. She’d teased them about needing wives and girlfriends, and sometimes helped them find good ones. Emmett had stayed at Henrietta’s so long, he had his own bed in the hallway at the top of the stairs. He’d only moved out a few months earlier.

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Feb 23
Nyayeek D (Feb 23 2021 10:17AM) : Shows how important Henrietta was to Emmett. When Emmett was in need Henrietta helped him and he feels he needs to do the same with her.
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Feb 23
Alexandra F (Feb 23 2021 2:09PM) : The relationship between Emmett and Henrietta is very sweet to me. I believe that they take care of each other, and each hold each other in a very special place in their heart.
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The last time Emmett saw Henrietta, he’d taken her to visit Elsie in Crownsville. They found her sitting behind barbed wire in the corner of a yard outside the brick barracks where she slept. When she saw them coming she made her birdlike noise, then ran to them and just stood, staring. Henrietta wrapped her arms around Elsie, looked her long and hard in the eyes, then turned to Emmett.

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“She look like she doin better,” Henrietta said. “Yeah, Elsie look nice and clean and everything.” They sat in silence for a long time. Henrietta seemed relieved, almost desperate, to see Elsie looking okay. That was the last time she would see her daughter—Emmett figures she knew she was saying goodbye. What she didn’t know was that no one would ever visit Elsie again.

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A few months later, when Emmett heard Henrietta needed blood, he and his brother and six friends piled into a truck and went straight to Hopkins. A nurse led them through the colored ward, past rows of hospital beds to the one where Henrietta lay. She’d withered from 140 pounds to about 100. Sadie and Henrietta’s sister Gladys sat beside her, their eyes swollen from too much crying and not enough sleep. Gladys had come from Clover by Greyhound as soon as she got word Henrietta was in the hospital. The two had never been close, and people still teased Gladys, saying she was too mean and ugly to be Henrietta’s sister. But Henrietta was family, so Gladys sat beside her, clutching a pillow in her lap.

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Feb 23
Alexandra F (Feb 23 2021 2:11PM) : In this book, Henrietta can only receive donations from the "colored blood" supply. This racism and inequity sets the stage for what period of time this takes place in.
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A nurse stood in the corner watching as the eight big men crowded around the bed. When Henrietta tried to move her arm to lift herself, Emmett saw the straps around her wrists and ankles, attaching her to the bed frame.

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“What you doin here?” Henrietta moaned.

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“We come to get you well,” Emmett said to a chorus of yeahs from the other men. Henrietta didn’t say a word. She just lay her head back on the pillow.

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Suddenly her body went rigid as a board. She screamed as the nurse ran to the bed, tightening the straps around Henrietta’s arms and legs to keep her from thrashing onto the floor as she’d done many times before. Gladys thrust the pillow from her lap into Henrietta’s mouth, to keep her from biting her tongue as she convulsed in pain. Sadie cried and stroked Henrietta’s hair.

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Nyayeek D (Feb 23 2021 10:20AM) : Henrietta felt so much pain that she couldn't move, and it happened multiple times that's why her body was strapped to the bed.
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“Lord,” Emmett told me years later. “Henrietta rose up out that bed wailin like she been possessed by the devil of pain itself.”

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The nurse shooed Emmett and his brothers out of the ward to the room designated for colored blood collection, where they’d donate eight pints of blood. As Emmett walked from Henrietta’s bedside, he turned to look just as the fit began to pass and Gladys slid the pillow from Henrietta’s mouth.

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“That there’s a memory I’ll take to my grave,” he told me years later. “When them pains hit, looked like her mind just said, Henrietta, you best leave. She was sick like I never seen. Sweetest girl you ever wanna meet, and prettier than anything. But them cells, boy, them cells of hers is somethin else. No wonder they never could kill them … That cancer was a terrible thing.”

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Soon after Emmett and his friends visited, at four o’clock on the afternoon of September 24, 1951, a doctor injected Henrietta with a heavy dose of morphine and wrote in her chart, “Discontinue all medications and treatments except analgesics.” Two days later, Henrietta awoke terrified, disoriented, wanting to know where she was and what the doctors had been doing to her. For a moment she forgot her own name. Soon after that, she turned to Gladys and told her she was going to die.

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Nyayeek D (Feb 23 2021 10:29AM) : Henrietta didn't get a choice in her treatment, and she realized that she couldn't be saved.
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“You make sure Day takes care of them children,” Henrietta told her sister, tears stream-ing down her face. “Especially my baby girl Deborah.” Deborah was just over a year old when Henrietta went into the hospital. Henrietta had wanted to hold Deborah, to dress her in beautiful clothes and braid her hair, to teach her how to paint her nails, curl her hair, and handle men.

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Nyayeek D (Feb 23 2021 10:27AM) : Motherhood was important to her, making sure she had her children taken care of before she passed seemed to be the main priority.
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Alexandra F (Feb 23 2021 2:12PM) : It's a common theme throughout the book that Henrietta believes her children are the most important thing in her life. Although she can't be there for them, she makes it her last wish for someone to take care of them.

Henrietta looked at Gladys and whispered, “Don’t you let anything bad happen to them children when I’m gone.”

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Then she rolled over, her back to Gladys, and closed her eyes.

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Gladys slipped out of the hospital and onto a Greyhound back to Clover. That night, she called Day.

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“Henrietta gonna die tonight,” she told him. “She wants you to take care of them kids—I told her I’d let you know. Don’t let nuthin happen to them.”

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Henrietta died at 12:15 a.m. on October 4, 1951.

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12 – The Storm (1951)

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There was no obituary for Henrietta Lacks, but word of her death reached the Gey lab quickly. As Henrietta’s body cooled in the “colored” freezer, Gey asked her doctors if they’d do an autopsy. Tissue culturists around the world had been trying to create a library of immortal cells like Henrietta’s, and Gey wanted samples from as many organs in her body as possible, to see if they’d grow like HeLa. But to get those samples after her death, someone would have to ask Henrietta’s husband for permission.

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Though no law or code of ethics required doctors to ask permission before taking tissue from a living patient, the law made it very clear that performing an autopsy or removing tissue from the dead without permission was illegal.

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The way Day remembers it, someone from Hopkins called to tell him Henrietta had died, and to ask permission for an autopsy, and Day said no. A few hours later, when Day went to Hopkins with a cousin to see Henrietta’s body and sign some papers, the doctors asked again about the autopsy. They said they wanted to run tests that might help his children someday. Day’s cousin said it wouldn’t hurt, so eventually Day agreed and signed an autopsy permission form.

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Soon Henrietta’s body lay on a stainless-steel table in the cavernous basement morgue, and Gey’s assistant, Mary, stood in the doorway breathing fast, feeling like she might faint. She’d never seen a dead body. Now there she was with a corpse, a stack of petridishes, and the pathologist, Dr. Wilbur, who stood hunched over the autopsy table. Henrietta’s arms were extended, as if she were reaching above her head. Mary walked toward the table, whispering to herself, You’re not going to make a fool of yourself and pass out.

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She stepped around one of Henrietta’s arms and took her place beside Wilbur, her hip in Henrietta’s armpit. He said hello, Mary said hello back. Then they were silent. Day wanted Henrietta to be presentable for the funeral, so he’d only given permission for a partial autopsy, which meant no incision into her chest and no removal of her limbs or head. Mary opened the dishes one by one, holding them out to collect samples as Wilbur cut them from Henrietta’s body: bladder, bowel, uterus, kidney, vagina, ovary, appendix, liver, heart, lungs. After drop-ping each sample into a petridish, Wilbur put bits of Henrietta’s tumor-covered cervix into containers filled with formal dehyde to save them for future use.

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The official cause of Henrietta’s death was terminal uremia: blood poisoning from the buildup of toxins normally flushed out of the body in urine. The tumors had completely blocked her urethra, leaving her doctors unable to pass a catheter into her bladder to empty it. Tumors the size of baseballs had nearly replaced her kidneys, bladder, ovaries, and uterus. And her other organs were so covered in small white tumors it looked as if someone had filled her with pearls.

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