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Practical Caregiving

Knowing Family Medical History Can Save Lives - Yours Too

By Jean Donahue

As I was waking up this morning, I heard Mom and Dad talking in the other room. I was in my bedroom -- the one I had while I was growing up. I didn't have a care in the world, so I must have been fairly young. I just felt happy and secure.

I know that experience was not a real experience. It was a memory from the deep recesses of my mind that came forward when I was asleep. It was, though, something from a time I had forgotten. I still have a warm feeling when I think about it.

Back to the present.

Not everyone had a childhood like mine. Many people didn't grow up feeling happy or secure, as I did. Some of those people are even my cousins and friends. There is something we all have in common, though. At some time in our lives, we will either need someone to take care of us or we will take care of someone else, or both.

I didn't live close to my cousins, so I didn't get to know them very well until adulthood. The internet and email have been wonderful in bringing us together. I have learned more about how Mom and Dad lived as children and about their grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. I have also learned things that I wish I would have known several years ago -- the medical history of my ancestry. I am now using that information to (hopefully) prevent physical and/or mental ailments in my future and that of my family.

As a family caregiver, it would be beneficial for you to find out as much as you can about the medical history of your loved one. What diseases did their parents have? Their siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and others further back?

I didn't know about breast cancer being in our family until Mom was in her late 70's. That's when Mom developed a lump in her breast. And that's when Dad told me that Mom's mother had a mastectomy on one side because of breast cancer, then a year later had another mastectomy on the other side because of breast cancer. About a year later, in 1936, Mom's mother died from pneumonia. The underlying cause could have been something else (like cancer itself) because the country doctors didn't know then nearly as much as they do now, and they didn't have access to the tests we do today. I found out about Mom's grandmother dying of breast cancer by looking at the official record of her death.

That's three generations of breast cancer! That is an unusually strong family line of breast cancer that we all should have been aware of before Mom was in her late 70's.

I finally started asking Mom, Dad and my relatives questions about our health history. I asked what they knew, and also how people acted that was different from a norm. I found that several of Dad's brothers and sisters had a Vitamin B-12 deficiency. I knew Dad was taking shots once a month because his body didn't absorb Vitamin B-12, but we thought it was because of the major surgeries he had on his stomach. That may have contributed to it, but it seems this is a problem in his family. I am now watching out for that because it can cause a lot of damage if the deficiency is severe.

I had asked about heart problems several years earlier because my daughter was bothered with heart problems (she is doing fine now). My grandfather died of a heart attack in his sleep when he was 64 (young for my family). A cousin had a disease that made her act like she was drunk when she wasn't -- there is a disease (perhaps more than one) that will mimic being drunk.

Mom's uncle went into the field and worked all day on an extremely hot day. He was happy and engaged, but he came in and killed himself for no reason known to our family. We think he must have had a heat stroke and didn't know what he was doing. There is Alzheimer's disease, anemia and other things in my family. Some things we have a diagnosis for, and other things we have the symptoms.

My point in telling you all of this is to urge you to learn your complete family medical history and to record it for the next generation. This is so important that I believe, along with the medical community, that we should find out everything we can about the diseases and symptoms our relatives have demonstrated. It may help you prevent a problem or treat a medical condition with the correct medicine.