She’s usually identified as Helen Lane, but often she has no name at all. She’s simply called HeLa, the code name given to the world’s first immortal human cells—her cells, cut from her cervix just months before she died.

This quotation comes from the Prologue, where Skloot introduces who Henrietta Lacks was and how HeLa cells became her scientific legacy. Here, Skloot emphasizes how Henrietta as a woman has become superseded by her cells. Despite the cells having shaped medical science, Henrietta, the person, had been lost to history. Most textbooks or articles about HeLa cells, before this book came out, did not make the connection between the cells and the person they came from, or if they did, did so incorrectly. 

Henrietta didn’t tell anyone what Jones said, and no one asked. She simply went on with her day as if nothing had happened, which was just like her—no sense upsetting anyone over something she could deal with herself.

This quotation comes from Chapter 3, after Henrietta gets the results of her biopsy back that reveals the tumor on her cervix is cancerous. Henrietta appears to have put her own medical needs aside in order to care for those around her. This small detail that we have of her in life characterizes her as extremely caring and self-sacrificing. That she didn’t even tell them about the cancer likely means she didn’t want to worry anyone or burden anyone. Unfortunately, her silence ultimately makes her deterioration all the more frightening for her family.

“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.” 

Cootie, Henrietta’s cousin, describes her in this way in Chapter 10, during Skloot’s first visit to Clover. His description further emphasizes Henrietta’s kind, nurturing, and caring nature, and highlights how she placed the needs of her family over her own. The contrast between how fondly people speak of Henrietta and the silence Deborah faces when trying to learn more about her mother is a heartbreaking dynamic. Henrietta apparently was a well-loved person, which made her loss extremely difficult for the Lacks family. In turn, the pain around Henrietta’s death makes her difficult for the Lacks family to talk about.

What got her most wasn’t the sight of Henrietta’s lifeless body, it was her toenails: Henrietta would rather have died than let her polish get all chipped like that.

This quotation comes from Chapter 12, when Henrietta’s cousin Sadie sees Henrietta’s corpse before the funeral. Sadie’s observation that Henrietta, when healthy, would never have allowed her nail polish to be chipped, suggests that she was meticulous about her appearance. Combined with Henrietta’s attempt to hide her illness from others, this detail characterizes her as someone who wanted to appear as someone who had everything together. Heartbreakingly, as Sadie mentions, the disarray of Henrietta’s nail polish shows thus shows how much pain Henrietta was in before her death.

The three of them hung handwritten flyers in Speed’s grocery store and around Turner Station, asking, “Who knew her favorite hymn? Who knew her favorite scripture? Who knew her favorite color? Who knew her favorite game?”

This quotation appears in Chapter 28, when there was a movement in Clover to create a Henrietta Lacks museum. These questions, which come from Deborah and Speed, the owner of the local grocery store, highlight how little of Henrietta as a person is known despite the fame of her cells. Ordinary, everyday favorite things like hymns, colors, and games are things that Deborah would likely have known if she hadn’t been so young when Henrietta died. As it is, the world knows a lot about Henrietta’s health and very little about her as a person.