From the Heart: The Importance of Gathering and Sharing Family Health History

By Caroline Silveira

While I’m usually the blogger that usually writes about lighter topics like dating or beauty products, I’ve got something straight from the heart for you. And it hurts.  But I want you all to be aware and do right.

I’ve just been through a very shocking and sad week and a half that, just two hours ago, culminated in the death of my maternal grandmother.  Grandma.  Grandma Lucille.  Sometimes Grandma Kinzel.  My mom’s mom.

I’ve learned an absolute ton through this experience, spiritually, health-wise, compassionately.  But what I find imperative to share during GOTG’s health and fitness month is the importance of knowing your family health history and sharing it with your doctor.  Now.  No, you’re not too young.

My grandma had a stroke the day after Mother’s Day 2010.  I’m still trying to gather and digest all the facts about her health conditions and how this happened.  Here’s what I knew before it happened:  On Mother’s Day, my mom told me grandma was having surgery that coming Tuesday to scrape her carotid artery clean because it was 70-80% clogged and could cause a stroke.  On the day before her scheduled surgery, the very thing that was to be avoided, massive stroke, occurred.  I have no desire to go into all the details (though if someone would like to contact me, I’d gladly talk to you), but this stroke was so massive that it resulted in her death 9 days later.  So, no more details, though they are illuminating as heartbreaking at times.

Here’s what I want you ladies and gents to know:  family health history is hugely important in knowing your risks and preventing them to live the healthiest life you can.  Here’s what you need to do – NOW.

Ask whatever remaining relatives you have about your grandparents, parents, even aunts, uncles and cousins, health histories.  We cannot escape death – it is part of life – but you can live a healthier life to your natural end.  Ask about all diagnosed conditions your family has ever had – heart disease, stroke, hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetic conditions, cancer or pre-cancerous lesions.

If you know you have a hereditary propensity for any of these conditions or others, it is critical to attend to them, treat them, or live a better lifestyle that will alleviate these conditions.

Take my example.  I knew my grandma had a pacemaker put in a few years ago.  I knew she had some kind of heart murmur or something.  But I saw a vibrant, completely alert grandma who was full of life, love and awareness.  What I was less aware about was that she had coronary-artery disease that was threatening her life.

She had probably had high blood pressure and cholesterol for some time.  But I think it was downplayed, so family members didn’t worry.  Once this all happened, we found out my grandma’s sisters had died of stroke, and one of my mom’s cousins had a stroke in her fifties.  Stroke is pretty clearly hereditary in my mother’s line.

And on my dad’s side, I know my dad has had high cholesterol, my paternal grandpa died of stroke, my grandma had some sort of kidney cancer (though still kicking at 95) – but I only know vague things.  I don’t know the real family health history.  You know you are tracking me right now!

Whenever we go into the doctor’s office, they hand you a health history form to fill out, and you think that it is ridiculously detailed – who knows all this stuff and how can it matter when you’re in your 20’s, 30’s, 40’s.  It matters!  You have to know your hereditary propensities to start living a healthy life now to avoid devastating health impacts later in life.

Take those forms seriously, discuss these things with your doctors, and learn how to address family health history issues now. How you live your life now affects the quality of life you have when you’re older, and you can’t get it back once the damage is done and your body is weakened by age and damage.  And, your doctors will now know what to watch out for.

Grandma had what the American Stroke Association would call a “warning stroke.”  This organization specifically warns against being lulled into the term “mini stroke” because it is a misnomer.  It is not “mini.”  It is your WARNING.  You will be having a major stroke if you have a warning stroke, although it could be up to a year.  Nonetheless, treatments and therapies must take place right away.

I don’t think anyone did anything wrong with regard to my grandma.  I don’t mean to suggest that.  My point is that modern medicine and younger generations can combine to create a wonderful opportunity to reduce risk or avoid debilitating diseases.  We know so much more about healthy lifestyles and ways to reduce risks for disease than my grandma’s generation during the critical prevention stage.

My mother is now committed to going to the doctor herself, establishing a baseline, sharing it with her family, and living a healthier lifestyle.  I am proud of her, will encourage (force) her, and look forward to this new compact we have with one another.  She is going to create her best family health history, share it with her doctor, but maybe even more lovingly, she is doing this for us – her children, husband, grandchildren, sisters and brothers.  She knows that her health is as important to our well being as hers – in two ways – for us not to see her needless suffering or for us ourselves not to experience personal suffering that could have been lessened or avoided with knowledge.

So, gather your family health history.  Be the annoying weirdo in the family that forces it out of everyone, compiles it, and shares it.  You will all feel better knowing you did what you could to prepare for the impacts of hereditary conditions.  My grandma left us with numerous and invaluable gifts, but this may be one that we can identify now, act upon immediately, and help others with.

Please see the American Heart Association website for more information on heart disease and stroke.

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  1. Ashley Robinson says

    thanks for sharing, caroline. family medical history is each person’s medical future, unfortunately.

    and i’m sorry to hear about your grandma. 🙁

  2. LaVerne says

    This is one of many lessons our mom, your grandmother, left us…thank you for putting it out there for others. HUGS

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