This is a photograph of the person who is probably responsible for 90% of her descendants’ deaths over the past 100 years. Our own version of Mrs. O’Leary (minus the cow, the fire and Chicago). This is Elizabeth Briggs-Smith, my mother’s grandmother. For her time, she was prodigious – married at least 3 times that we can document, buried all three husbands before dying herself at the age of 55 from what was referred to at the time as ‘dropsy’. We call that congestive heart failure today – and any way you slice, dice, or mince it, she died of heart disease but not before having several children. One of them was my grandmother, Rosalyn Briggs-Smith. She and my grandfather proceeded to have over a period of 20 years (20 years!!!) 9 children, 2 of whom died during the worldwide influenza epidemic of 1917-1918. My mother was born in 1919. Out of the 7 children who survived to adulthood, all were touched by heart disease, the youngest son having his first heart attack in his mid-forties.

My grandmother died in her early 60s – heart disease.
Son 1- eventually died of cancer in his 80s but had heart disease
Daughter 1 – dead of a massive heart attack in her early 70s
Daughter 2 – dead of heart failure in her early 60s – her younger son has already died of a heart attack. The elder son has heart failure.
Daughter 3 – developed extreme and uncontrollable cholesterol in her 50s, was on approximately 12 different Rxs for the rest of her life. Died after a heart attack and stroke which caused her to develop multiple infarct dementia. Died in her mid-80s.
Daughter 4 – See Daughter 3 – same end result -died in her early 80s of a massive stroke while under care for Multiple Infarct type dementia.
Daughter 5 – See Daughter 3 – died after a massive heart attack in her 70s
Son 2 – First heart attack in his mid 40s – died in his 50s.

This has all come to mind because the DH has had a death in his family recently – and it certainly is hitting him quite hard because this is a brother who is very close to him in age and was not the eldest. But the DH has a Mrs. Briggs-Smith in his family too – his mother’s father, who died extremely young of a heart attack. His mother had to leave school at the age of 13 to go to work to support the rest of the family because of her father’s death. There were four original children to live to adulthood – two have already died from heart attacks.

The point here is this: We come into this world with no choices over what DNA cocktail we’ve got. And we now have more information and analysis than ever about what long term effect choices concerning exercise, work environment, types of foods we eat (and their inflammatory effects or not), smoking, drinking, and drug use can have. But the DNA – your genetics – is the environment that has the ultimate effect on how those choices effect YOU.

On the other side of it, however, we tend to not discuss ‘family health history’ a whole lot, especially with siblings, children and cousins. People are afraid to even know what is out there – and that makes things very dangerous for us. There is always a certain amount of delusion that we all play with, especially when we are young. For the young, people who are not young are old. There is no stage in between ‘my age and how I feel right now’ and "old, sick and ready to die’. Young people do not understand that the decisions they make today and tomorrow and the day after that are going to effect who they are and how they feel when THEY are no longer young. As the composer Eubie Blake said, "If I’d known how long I was going to live, I’d have taken better care of myself."

And this is where ‘family-based healthcare system reform’ comes in. No matter how all of the broohaha settles out in terms of national healthcare system reform (and goodness knows we need it), we still all need a big dose of family-based healthcare reform and that starts right from the point of looking at our families as far back as we can get, putting it all down on paper and plotting out the possible connections. Do it like a genealogical diagram, with the folks farthest back at the top. Call, write, email, FB..whatever it takes to find out as much as you can so that you can put it all down and look at it from the dispassionate position of a researcher. What happened? Who ‘touched’ whom? It is not just "I’ve got Grandpa’s chin" – it is also "I’ve got Grandpa’s crappy knees and his disc disease and perhaps some other things as well." Or, ‘Great-grandma died of breast cancer in her 40s; she had three daughters and one died of ovarian cancer in her 40s, one died of colon cancer in her 50s and one died of breast cancer in her 40s. The one who died of ovarian cancer had a son who died of prostate cancer in his early 60s."

It’s all connected. But if we don’t know about it, there is no way to share the information with our families so that we can help our kids with early choices at home and help them make decisions later on that will help them have better health as adults. We are part of ‘healthcare reform’ too – and we are the part that has a certain amount of control over what happens..but we can’t make informed choices if we don’t know what’s out there.



Snarky housewife from Upstate New York. Into gardening, fiber arts, smallholder farming.