Study Guide

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks Chapter 28

By Rebecca Skloot

Chapter 28

After London (1996-1999)

  • Skloot writes about the production of the BBC documentary on Henrietta Lacks, the one she watched in Courtney Speed's beauty parlor.
  • Deborah was excited about Adam Curtis' work, thinking it would help get Henrietta's story out there and let her move forward with her life.
  • He did a lot of filming, even following the family to Atlanta when they attended Roland Pattillo's conference at Morehouse.
  • Pattillo had felt a connection to Henrietta's story from the first time he learned about her, and always wanted to honor her contributions to science. He grew up poor, too.
  • So he organized the first HeLa Symposium and even managed to get an official proclamation from the mayor saying that October 11 would be honored as Henrietta Lacks Day.
  • Howard Jones wrote down his memories of Henrietta's diagnosis and sent it to Pattillo for the conference. Jones said that Henrietta's sacrifice had led to huge scientific progress.
  • Deborah was happy when Pattillo told her about all this, and even happier when the Lacks family was honored and treated well for the first time by the scientific community.
  • They piled into a rented SUV and headed for Atlanta.
  • There were some problems at the event. Zakariyya acted up when they called him Joe. He also did a lot of drinking. Sonny got sick. Deborah thought someone would assassinate her.
  • But they got through it, and Deborah gave a speech where she directly addressed her mother, saying that she missed her and loved her.
  • When the BBC crew visited Turner Station, they met up with Courtney Speed, the founder of the Turner Station Heritage Committee.
  • She wanted to bring attention to Henrietta as a former resident of the community who'd made important contributions to the world.
  • She and her partner in the effort, Barbara Wyche, began trying to get recognition for Henrietta.
  • The Smithsonian invited the family to the Natural History Museum, where people came up to thank the family for Henrietta's contribution to the research that had helped them beat cancer.
  • But Deborah still didn't understand the scientific work being done with her mother's cells. She asked if DNA from the cells could be put into her eggs to bring Henrietta back to life.
  • Speed wanted to open a Henrietta Lacks Health History Museum and began to work on the project.
  • They'd gotten some momentum on the project, but Deborah put a stop to it.
  • After someone suggested she donate her mother's bible with Henrietta and Elsie's locks of hair to the new museum, she put on the brakes.
  • She soon learned that Speed and Wyche were raising money for the museum. That didn't fly with her, either. She thought that if anyone was collecting money, it should be Henrietta's children collecting money to go to the doctor.
  • Deborah eventually went along with the plan because she thought it might get her more info about her mother.
  • Despite the bumps in the road, Wyche and Speed did succeed in getting official recognition for Henrietta, including a mention in the House of Representatives of her contribution.
  • Wyche also wrote to the president of Johns Hopkins, though he responded that he wasn't sure how Hopkins could help to celebrate Henrietta's life.
  • But he did circulate Wyche's letter to people at Hopkins, which led to the formation of a small, unofficial group that brainstormed ways to honor the Lacks family.
  • Enter Keenan Kester Cofield. Cofield was a major scam artist who spent his time filing frivolous lawsuits.
  • He latched onto Henrietta's story and contacted Deborah, saying that he was a lawyer and a doctor and that she should sue Hopkins for the money they should have gotten for the HeLa cells.
  • The Lacks men were very happy about Cofield's offer to help without charging them, so they hired him to represent them.
  • One small problem: Cofield wasn't a doctor or a lawyer. He was an emotionally disturbed con man who spent time in prison and spent his life driving people crazy with pseudo-legal filings.
  • Though he was a fraud, Cofield did actually go to Hopkins and find information about Henrietta, which the family had never done before. Unfortunately, he also lied to the family about her care.
  • Soon, Hopkins staff uncovered Cofield for the fake that he was and learned that he'd spent a lot of time in jail taking law courses. And filing lawsuits.
  • The Lackses didn't know anything of this, and sadly, they were taken in by his personality.
  • The attorney from Hopkins told Deborah what he'd learned about Cofield and got her to sign a document denying him access to Henrietta's medical records.
  • Cofield didn't take this very well. He turned around and threatened to sue the family, Courtney Speed and people at Hopkins.
  • He also outrageously claimed that the Lacks family had no right to Henrietta's records because she'd been born with a different name. Nobody wants to take Cofield on. He's clearly nuts.
  • Gah.
  • Cofield's scary and intrusive behavior turns Deborah against Speed. She threatens to sue her if Speed didn't stop work on the Henrietta Lacks Foundation.
  • And now people are asking Deborah questions about her mother that she can't answer.
  • Deborah decides she needs to get a handle on her mother's story, so she requests Henrietta's medical records from Hopkins.
  • Kidwell, the Hopkins attorney that uncovered Cofield's scam, promised Deborah that he'd deal with Cofield.
  • But Cofield buries Deborah in a mound of legal papers—summonses, petitions, motions.
  • The damage was done: Deborah couldn't believe that Cofield would ever leave them alone and the group at Hopkins that wanted to honor Henrietta disbanded once they heard of the sham lawsuits. Too messy.
  • Deborah was physically assaulted twice at work around this time and sustained some serious injuries. She withdrew to her home and wouldn't come out.
  • She learned from her mother's medical records that her sister had been placed at Crownsville. Now she worried that perhaps Elsie had been used for medical experimentation, too.
  • Deborah tried to get Elsie's records from Crownsville but found out that most records were destroyed. She broke out in hives and her blood pressure spiked.
  • It's at this moment that Pattillo called her to say that Skloot wanted to write a book about her mother.

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