Deborah Lacks Pullum: A Life in the Shadow of HeLa

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" by Rebecca Skloot. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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Who was Deborah Lacks Pullum? How did her mother’s death and exploitation affect her? Did Deborah Lacks ever get anything for the HeLa cells taken from her mother?

Deborah Lacks Pullum was the fourth child of Henrietta Lacks and David “Day” Pleasant. She was the only daughter to survive to adulthood. Her efforts to find out more about her mother combined with other struggles gravely affected her health.

Read about the life of Deborah Lacks Pullum, who struggled while others profited off the cells taken from her mother.

Day and Henrietta were married in 1941, and shortly thereafter, they moved to Turner Station, a booming industrial neighborhood in Baltimore. They had three more children—David, Jr. (Sonny), Deborah, and Joe (later Zakariyya)—the last in 1950. 

Deborah Lacks Marries

By 1966, 18-year-old Deborah had embarked on a relationship with Cheetah Carter, the boy she’d been walking with when Galen punched her, and become pregnant with their first child, Alfred, Jr. Deborah’s pregnancy notwithstanding, Bobbette insisted Deborah finish high school and get a job, and Bobbette helped take care of Alfred Jr. so Deborah could do so.

Deborah had married Cheetah. Shortly after the birth of their second child, LaTonya, Cheetah began using drugs and abusing Deborah. He also began selling drugs out of the house in front of their children.

One day Cheetah, drunk and high, began beating Deborah. On a previous occasion when Cheetah hit her she’d threatened him with a knife; now, when he stumbled toward the steps of their apartment, she pushed him down them. When she saw he was still alive, she dragged him outside—it was frigid and snowing—and left him on the ground without a coat to freeze. 

When she woke the next morning, she found Cheetah still alive, sitting on their building’s front stoop. He thought he’d been jumped. Deborah put him in bed and then called Bobbette. She told Bobbette that she was going to kill Cheetah in his sleep with a monkey wrench. Bobbette convinced her not to, and the next day, while Cheetah was at work, Deborah and children moved out.

Deborah divorced Cheetah in 1976 and remarried in 1980. Her second husband, James Pullum, was a mechanic, and he’d been a petty criminal before finding Christianity. He’d begun moonlighting as a preacher shortly before he and Deborah wed.

Deborah’s Stroke

Deborah Lacks Pullum had been suffering from hives and she wanted to see her doctor. When she arrived at her doctor’s office, was told that her blood pressure and sugar levels were dangerously high—enough so that she was in danger of having a stroke. The doctor urged her to avoid any stress at all for the near future, so Deborah and Skloot decided that Deborah was better off staying at home when Skloot went on reporting trips. As Skloot’s knowledge developed over the subsequent months, she only told Deborah the positive things she discovered.

Deborah seemed calm and eager, but other aspects of her life weren’t as hopeful. Her son was in prison and would be put on trial shortly after the conference, and one of Lawrence’s sons had been arrested for robbery as well. And then, the day after Deborah Lacks Pullum heard about Lawrence’s son and mere days before the conference, terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It was 9/11.

The Sunday after 9/11, Deborah Lacks Pullum was in church. Pullum was preaching, and her grandson, nine-year-old Davon, sat with the church choir. When the service ended and the parishioners stood, Deborah fell to one knee just as Davon rushed off the choir platform, yelling that something was wrong with his grandma. 

Pullum immediately recognized what was ailing Deborah: a stroke. As soon as Davon heard the word, he dug Deborah’s car key from her purse and raced outside. He opened all of the car doors wide and started the car himself. Pullum drove them in the direction of a nearby fire station; while he drove, Davon kept slapping Deborah to keep her awake. 

When they arrived at the fire station, the firefighters administered emergency treatment and put Deborah in an ambulance. They told Davon that Deborah Lacks’ death was averted by keeping her awake.

Recovery and Deborah Lacks’ Death

The day Deborah left the hospital was Skloot’s birthday. Deborah Lacks Pullum called Skloot and left a calmly delivered message letting her know she’d had a stroke and wouldn’t be able to meet Skloot in Clover, as they’d planned. Though she wasn’t yet fully recovered, the doctors believed she would eventually regain full function. 

Deborah told Skloot that her doctor had told her she needed to learn to control her blood pressure and blood sugar; otherwise, a second stroke, which would likely be worse than the first, was probable. That second stroke, if it came, would likely cause Deborah Lacks’ death. She took the doctor’s advice as another sign she needed to go back to school: She could take a nutrition class to learn how to eat healthily.

Unfortunately, the obstacle to Deborah Lacks Pullum’s returning to school wasn’t her health or drive but poverty: Her social security benefits simply weren’t enough to cover both her living expenses and classes and books. 

Deborah divorced Pullum and moved into an assisted-living facility herself. In 2006, when Deborah’s divorce was finalized, she had no money in her checking account, and her entire monthly income was $742: $732 from social security and $10 in food stamps.

Deborah’s Final Days

In 2009, eight years after Deborah Lacks’ death, Sonny had gone over to check on Deborah when she didn’t answer a call from Davon. He’d found her in bed, smiling, dead from a heart attack. It was just a few days after Mother’s Day.

Deborah Lacks Pullum: A Life in the Shadow of HeLa

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Rebecca Skloot's "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks summary :

  • How Henrietta's cells became used in thousands of labs worldwide
  • The complications of Henrietta's lack of consent
  • How the Lacks family is coping with the impact of Henrietta's legacy

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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