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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What happened to Henrietta Lacks’ siblings? Was she close to Gladys Pleasant Lacks? How was Gladys Lacks impacted by her sister’s death?
Gladys Pleasant Lacks was Henrietta Lacks’ older sister. She heard Henrietta’s last words as she was dying and remained in her children’s lives.
Learn more about Gladys Lacks and Skloot’s visit to her house.
Henrietta’s Marriage and Death
Henrietta and Day were married in 1941, when they were 20 and 25 respectively. Gladys, Henrietta Lacks’ sibling, objected to the marriage because she thought Day would be a bad husband. Henrietta and Day later moved to Turner Station in Maryland.
Henrietta died in October 1951. In the two months she was in the hospital, tumors had colonized her body, appearing as high as her diaphragm and lungs, and she’d needed constant blood transfusions because her kidneys were failing. The pain was tremendous. Her last words were to her sister Gladys. She implored her to make sure Day took care of the children.
Rebecca Skloot Meets Gladys Pleasant Lacks
They then visited Deborah’s aunt, Gladys Pleasant Lacks. Even though it was relatively warm outside, inside Gladys had a large wood stove burning so hot she perspired. Soon after Skloot and Deborah’s arrival, Gladys’s son, Gary, came through the front door. Deborah immediately showed Gary the newly discovered picture of Elsie and began pacing around the room, rambling about Elsie and Henrietta and random news headlines.
Gary, who’d sat in a large recliner, attempted to calm Deborah. He managed to get her to sit, but only for an instant—soon enough she was up and pacing again, talking a blue streak about what she and Skloot had learned about her mother. Gary made frequent references to scripture, urging Deborah to trust in God and worry more about her herself and less about her mother.
When it became clear that Deborah was losing control, Gary, rising from his chair, explained that God was speaking to him. He approached Deborah with his arms open, and once she touched him, he clasped her head between his hands and brought it to his chest. He began shaking, singing, and preaching, inviting God into Deborah’s body to heal her. He summoned God because Deborah needed help “lifting the burden” of her mother’s cells.
Soon Deborah and Gary were crying and beseeching God together, begging him to take the cells from her. Then Gary looked at Skloot and said that God had sent Skloot to lift Deborah’s burden—to take the cells. Skloot was shocked.
Immediately Deborah separated from Gary and sighed with relief. She thanked Gary, but Gary gave all the credit to God. At that moment, the rain, which had been a drizzle when Gary first embraced Deborah, suddenly became a downpour. Gary said it was a sign that the Lord had been listening.
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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