Pictures of Health
I made this modern-style family tree—more like a family organism!—with my daughter as the center. It will make a pretty picture for her room, but it also has a serious purpose: The bubbles are keyed to a separate document listing what I have been able to find out about the medical history of our family members.
After I found out that I had type 2 diabetes, back in 2001, I wondered a lot about the genetics of the disease. I'd heard about one person in my family who had diabetes, but that was it. So I asked my great-aunt if she knew of any others. "No, not many," she said—and then proceeded to list several in her generation alone! It turned out, too, that my beloved great-grandmother Reba—whom I remembered for her fabulously soft skin and her dramatically long gray braid—had been living with diabetes, and in fact my great-aunt had given her insulin injections. Like many in that generation of our family, she lived until a happy old age.
Whether you have diabetes or not, it's useful to know your family medical history and to tell your health care providers about it. Those old stories may hold important clues about your health today. I, for one, wish I'd known in advance that the probability of my getting diabetes was much higher than that of the general population. And I hope there aren't any other inherited afflictions squirreled away in the family tree. I suppose that in some families such things are talked about often and openly, but in mine that is not the case. It takes some digging.
And so I got out the shovel. Starting by questioning family members, I have been putting together my daughter's family tree. Because my husband's family pretty much all stayed in Ireland until quite recently, they can fairly easily be traced back to the early 18th century. On my side, however, much is lost. A bit of work online has borne fruit—I even got to see a copy of the ship's registry from 1908 showing the arrival of two of my mother's grandparents in New York. The registry doesn't mention anything about their health, but the sight of their names gave me a bit of a thrill. How did they decide to come here, and what did they make of the New World? And what did Great-Grandma Reba, born in Philadelphia in the 1890s, make of the 1960s? Would my husband's great-great-great grandfather Frank have even dreamed that he would have American descendants? While this project was propelled by a search for medical clues, it has had a wonderful side effect: a chance to imagine the lives behind the genes.