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.

Oh, and don’t edit it just because you don’t like what you find. Data is just data. You can analyze and cry about it later.

For my assigned genogram, I only went as far as my own grandparents — so just two generations before me and one after me (my and my sister’s own children) — and focused, primarily, on mental health since my assignment was for psychiatric nursing.

What I discovered was not, necessarily, surprising — because I already was aware — but it was telling to me when drawn out in genogram form. To wit: There were 22 people on my genogram, 16 of them presently adults (or dead, may they rest peacefully). Of those 16 people, SIX suffer or suffered from alcoholism or a seemingly related “substance” issue. If you like numbers, like I do, you translate that to nearly ONE in THREE. One in three adults in my family — including me — is or was alcoholic or something similar.


If I had not already known alcoholism was an issue, my genogram would have told me, then, what to pay attention to as I rear my own children. See the value of the family medical history?

With your genogram, you can look at any data you can get, and I’ll guarantee you you’ll learn something worthwhile.

I’ll be opportunistic and tell you maternal-age women that your midwives would LOVE you to be able to give them a thorough history of health and reproductive issues in your family.

You could write out a genogram noting everything from who had twins to who had premature births to who had stillborns to who had 10-pound babies. Oh, the usefulness of such information as your providers develop a plan of care for your childbearing years. Dreamy.

So there you have it, another project. Last thing you need, right? Like me? Truly, a genogram is one project worth taking the time to do.

Goshen News columnist Stephanie Price is a wife, mother, teacher, childbirth educator, doula, midwife’s assistant and student nurse pursuing a minor in complementary health. Contact her at wholefamily@goshennews.com, 269-641-7249 or on Facebook at the page “Whole Family Column by Steph Price.”