It’s an unfortunate thing what happened, they still should be very proud, their mother will never die as long as the medical science is around, she will always be such a famous thing.

Susan Hsu makes this comment in Chapter 23, when she learns that the Lacks family did not fully understand why samples of their blood were taken. Although Hsu feels bad about the Lacks family’s hurt, to Hsu, Henrietta’s scientific legacy of helping people outweighs the downsides, and she hopes the family will feel that way too. Although the “famous thing” language is likely a result of English not being Hsu’s first language, it is illustrative of how the broader scientific community sees HeLa cells as things, separate from Henrietta as a person. For science, Henrietta’s cells are her sole legacy.

She out there helpin people in medicine and that’s good, I just want the history to come out to where people know my mother, HeLa, was Henrietta Lacks.

Deborah makes this comment in Chapter 29 after stating her belief that there is no way her family will ever see compensation from HeLa cells. For Deborah, her greatest concern is that people know who Henrietta was. For decades, HeLa cells themselves overshadowed the woman they came from to the extent that she was rarely named or named incorrectly in coverage of the cells. Deborah wants to make sure her mother is never erased from her legacy.

Maybe her cells have done good for some people, but I woulda rather had my mother. If she hadn’t been sacrificed, I mighta growed up to be a lot better person than I am now.

Zakariyya makes this comment in Chapter 30 after explaining how furious he is over everything that has happened. While the scientific community rejoices over the cells Henrietta left behind, her children lost their mother. Zakariyya believes Henrietta’s death created a legacy of pain and anger in his life, which for him overshadows his ability to care about the scientific progress from HeLa cells. This human loss and the injustices surrounding it complicate the story of HeLa cells as a medical triumph.

“HeLa?” I asked Gary. “You’re saying HeLa is her spiritual body?”

Gary makes this comment to Skloot in Chapter 36, not long after he performs the soul cleansing on Deborah. Gary uses his deep spiritual beliefs to bring HeLa cells into his religious worldview. To Gary, HeLa cells are Henrietta’s angelic form through which she helps those on earth. This way of grappling with Henrietta’s legacy brings together both Henrietta’s cells and her as a woman. Those who knew Henrietta in life say she was always helping others, and therefore it makes sense to see that same spirit of care working through her cells. 

“This child will someday know that her great-grandmother Henrietta helped the world!” Pullum yelled…. “So will that child … and that child … and that child. This is their story now. They need to take hold of it and let it teach them they can change the world too.” 

During the baptism of one of Sonny’s granddaughters in Chapter 37, Pullum makes this striking statement. With this sermon, Pullum reworks Henrietta’s legacy into something that can inspire the new generation of Lackses instead of perpetuating their misery. He reminds the congregation that Henrietta’s cells have saved lives and changed the world, meaning that the ability to create change can be within each of them. Although other Lacks family members have described the immortality of Henrietta’s cells as a miracle to others, this moment gives that sentiment a new dimension that allows the Lacks family to derive hope from it.