Goshen News, Goshen, IN


April 7, 2013

Family tree can shed light on health risks

The last thing I needed was another project. I grew irritated, even, at what I complained was “too much busywork” for a pass-fail clinical class. Grumble, grumble. My nursing instructor had assigned, among what seemed like five dozen other projects, a family GENOGRAM.

“Ack! I thought. “I don’t have time to do this, and I don’t want to look that thoroughly at my family.” Reluctantly, I reminded myself to shut up, do the work and see what I might learn. That is, after all, what I tell my children to do.

So, a genogram.

Do you know what that is? I did not, really, until I was assigned to do one. Well, when there’s “geno” in the word, you can be sure it has something to do with family history — probably medical history — and a “gram” is just a picture or a diagram or a graphic map of some kind.

So a “genogram,” then, is a graphic map of your family medical and social history. A family tree, if you will. Writing one sounds so fun, right? Actually, it was.

The first place to start, if you use a computer and the Internet, is Google. Remember my own love affair with the search engine? Google does not disappoint. “Genogram” got me 684,000 results in less than one second. Nice.

From your results, read a good definition, then, which I did from Merriam-Webster: “Genogram: a diagram outlining the history of the behavior patterns (as of divorce, abortion, or suicide) of a family over several generations; a similar diagram detailing the medical history of a family in order to assess a family member’s risk of developing disease.”

This definition helps because it notes the “why” of a genogram, which is always my question about everything — “What’s the purpose?” Merriam-Webster says you write a genogram “in order to assess a family member’s risk of developing disease.” So a genogram shows you what’s afflicted your family, if anything, and what could be risk factors for yourself or others.

Next — again, if you use a computer — is to get software that lets you plug in information and draws maps for you. You can, certainly, draw them by hand, and it’s not difficult to do so, but this is one place I’m happy to pay for someone else’s proverbial “wheel” rather than reinvent my own.

Actually, I did not pay. I downloaded and used the free version from www.MyHeritage.com. If I wanted to do more in-depth mapping, I would purchase the more deluxe version. There are hundreds of software options available in those 684,000 results.

Once you’ve decided how to draw out your family tree, either on the computer or by hand, you face the difficult part of a genogram. You need family information. Depending on how thorough you want to be and how many generations back you want to go, you might have difficulty getting it.

Even if you can locate family members and wrench from them their and their parents’ or grandparents’ information, many people are not excited to talk about private health or social matters, especially those that might be unpleasant like mental illness, divorce or death.

So you get what you can.

The goal, remember, is to find out what has ailed your recent ancestors. Did they have heart disease? Diabetes? Cancer? Alcoholism? How did they die? What’s the divorce rate in your family? How about life expectancy?

Did Great-Grandpa, may he rest peacefully, die in 1967 or was it 1972? And what was that diagnosis? Colon cancer or prostate — can’t remember? Be as precise as you’re able.

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