HeLa Is Here
by Ketty Steward
Translated from French by Toshiya Kamei
“That’s it, she opens her eyes! Great Goddess!”
The young woman lying on the bed blinks and struggles to remember where she is. The room is well lit and poorly furnished. Is it a room at the Johns Hopkins Hospital?
“Henrietta! How are you feeling?”
That’s her first name, but something is amiss. She whispers, “Who are you?”
The woman coming toward her is shaking a little. She’s dressed in a white skin-tight suit. A nurse? She’s black and wears long dreadlocks. So this isn’t an indigent hospital where only cleaners and patients are people of color.
Henrietta closes her eyes and tries to gather the scattered bits of her identity.
Thirty-one years old, she works in a tobacco field. She is ill and treated for cervical cancer. She has five children waiting for her return. Why do these facts seem so remote?
Dr. Jones said that her tumor is not ordinary and that’s why the treatment is not very conclusive at the moment. She doesn’t feel any pain in her lower abdomen.
Henrietta suddenly remembers the great cold that covered her before the eternal night engulfed her.
She opens her eyes again. “I’m dead—”
“Yes!” responds the nurse, enthusiastic. “Dead and resurrected.” She raises her arms and recites: “And HeLa said to her disciples: I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live even if he dies.”
A mixed-race woman, her Afro standing proudly on her head, approaches from Henrietta’s right side. She is wearing the same kind of white suit.
“We have to go slowly, Sister MeLa. She comes back from far away, exhausted. We will have to explain everything to her, but it’s better to spare her.”
“Yes, of course, Sister OuLa. I’m too impetuous. Thank God!”
“Forever and ever!”
“By our lady, amen!”
Henrietta feels weak, but she wants to sit up. She focuses on this thought and, as if it heard her, the bed slowly tilts up until she’s in a slanting position that allows her to contemplate the rest of the room.
The floor is coated with light gray resin and the bare walls look like glass. Changing patterns glide in random movements.
What day is it today?
A rectangular section of the wall facing her darkens and displays the date: Wednesday, October 04, 51.
It’s impressive, but wrong. She corrects aloud, “Thursday. It’s Thursday, October 4, 1951.”
As the two nurses exchange funny looks, she explains, “Yesterday, 03, I was at the market. I remember it perfectly. The market is Wednesday.”
They turn away from Henrietta and openly debate.
“She found by herself how to use her brain impulses for furniture and screens!” the woman called MeLa points out.
“Even small kids do it.”
“She’s an exceptional woman. She will know how to take the shock.”
“I’m afraid it’s too brutal.”
“We’ll have to tell her sooner or later.”
“Okay, go ahead.”
MeLa faces Henrietta and announces in a low voice, “You’re dead, indeed. October 4, 1951. Exactly a hundred years ago. Today is Wednesday, October 04, 2051.” She smiles.
* * *
Her second awakening, two hours later, is less difficult. Henrietta recognizes the two worried women standing at her bedside and the date is still displayed, insolent.
“All right,” she says to herself, “I want to understand what’s going on.” She straightens the bed, coughs, then declares, “Go ahead. I’m ready. Tell me your story.”
“It’s yours, HeLa,” MeLa answers.
“Who is this Ella you have already mentioned?”
The two citizens of the twenty-first century then began to reveal to Henrietta Lacks, or rather her clone, who she was and what she has represented for medical research for decades.
“You mean that all this time, my cells have divided, or rather multiplied without ever stopping?”
“Millions of times, yes.”
“Only, it’s the disease that is immortal, it seems. Not me!”
“Let’s say that cancer has been inserted in your cells in a unique way. But these cells are yours, Henrietta, with your DNA.”
“This code that makes each of these cells a piece of you, with all your characteristics, all that makes you unique. It’s thanks to this that we managed to clone you.”
“How is it that I remember what she did? I’m not her!”
“We are able to save and reactivate biographical memories, original or restored. There has been so much wonderful work on your life!”
“So I’m a copy of Henrietta Lacks who will die at any moment because of her extraordinary cancer!”
“Yes and no. You’re HeLa, matured in vats for two months, but treated for cancer.”
“With uranium bars, as Dr. Jones did?”
“Radioactive substances are no longer used in healthcare today. These methods have too many side effects. We have found a way to encourage the body to reabsorb cancer cells, when we detect them early enough, of course!”
Henrietta asks a lot of questions and gets answers that are often unsettling.
She’s a very intelligent woman with extraordinary adaptability. Even if she doesn’t understand everything, she accepts, to the best of her ability, all the changes that have taken place in the field of medicine over the last one hundred years. She’s proud to learn that many of these advances have been made possible by her cells, the HeLa line, the first immortal cells.
Her mid-twentieth-century brain has difficulty with magnetic anesthesia, therapeutic dance and music, implants and constant-regulating patches, nanobots, bacterial transplants, patient-care groups, and a series of practices no one would have even dared imagine in her time.
“And childbirth,” she asks. “Is it still Russian roulette for our sisters?”
“We no longer deliver in hospitals because we realized that giving life is not a disease. It happens at home or in birthplaces with family or friends.”
When she asks what happened to her children, OuLa gives her Rebecca Skloot’s book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. “This is our holy book, the Bible of your worshipers!”
This is how she learns that at the end of 2010, following a mythical cycle of studies on Afro-cyberfeminism, the sect came into being and became the official religion, of which HeLa is the deity.
Millions of women, especially, but also men, worship her and make her deeds known.
After a moment of surprise, Henrietta gets angry.
“No, no, and no! I don’t agree with this cult, this religion! I never asked for this!”
“We know,” replies MeLa. “You didn’t give your consent to the Primordial Sampling—”
“No more than my resurrection!”
A silence follows these last words. Then, it’s OuLa who decides to speak.
“This question of consent divides the Church. These words you have just said are a real problem for us. HeLa75 said the same thing.”
“HeLa75? Let me guess. A Henrietta resuscitated for the seventy-fifth anniversary of my death, or rather her death. Is that it?”
“In 2026, yes. It was a real technical feat. Cloning worked well, the implementation of memory a little less. Unfortunately, the treatment of cancer was not yet developed. She only lived four hours before finally succumbing to it. We have vintage recordings...”
Henrietta feels exhausted again. She wants to sleep. She tilts her bed, sighs, and then asks, “What do you expect of me?”
“Hardly anything,” MeLa answers. “Your miracles are accompanied by tangible proofs: the multiplication of cells, their immortality, the healing of the sick... and now your resurrection!”
“So you don’t need me. I have no family, no friends. I’m far from my time. I’m sure your world is great, but it’s not mine.”
“We’ll explain everything,” OuLa promises. “You’ll meet people!”
“I don’t want to,” Henrietta answers. “I want to die in peace. Keep all the cells, but please let me go!”
The two women look at each other and talk with no words, in the midst of their worst dismay.
Will they further extend the list of those who have violated this woman’s basic rights?
Henrietta relies on their decision. She yawns and, slowly, falls asleep.