We should tell our medical histories to our children

There was an article in the New York Times recently about the importance of cultivating a family narrative to instill a sense of identity, control, and resilience in children. The more children know about their family story, the better equipped they are to handle stresses that would shake their foundation. Is it possible that, in the realm of personal health and well being, the cultivation of an affirmative family medical narrative might bolster one’s constitution?

Family narratives tend to follow one of three arcs. First there is the ascending motif: your grandfather came to this country as a peasant, his son became a teacher, and now you are in medical school. The second theme is the descending one: we used to have it all but now everything is falling apart. And the third narrative, which seems to be the most edifying, is the nuanced one: your father was a great business man, but he sometimes drank too much. Your grandmother was an excellent piano player, but her brother was in trouble with the law. No matter what, they stuck together as a family.

Children with the most confidence seem to possess an inter-generational self, a sense of identity that is part of something bigger. They can recall past chapters of hardships overcome by other family members, and get to work writing such stories of resilience when life presents new setbacks and sorrows.

Is it possible that in order to create a healthier, adaptive sense of well being we should set out to tell stories of good health and sanguine habits, and at the same time revere the tales of medical adversities overcome? Often we cannot control what medical ailments come our way, and many are utterly devastating. But as a family doctor I have seen family ailments that are less a genetic predisposition than an inherited legacy of symptom comprehension and behavior.

I hope to incorporate the strength of my great grandfather, who built his own house in the forest and chopped wood well into his eighties. I recall and regret that my grandmother smoked for fifty years, addicted as most of her generation was to nicotine. Yet I honor and hope to emulate her courage in the face of chemotherapy when it is my turn – may I have the strength of character to still make it to church and the farmer’s market on Sundays, holding my bald head high and keeping my exhausted eyes open to fight another day.

We should tell our medical histories, both good ones and bad ones, to our children – with hopeful, brave, and steadfast themes of endurance and vigor. It might just save or comfort a life.

“Dr. Charles” is a family physician who blogs at The Examining Room of Dr. Charles.

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  • James

    My father told me the stories of his home visits and the independence, role model, and pillar of society that doctors used to be. I still have his old fashioned black doctor’s bag to prove it. I will tell stories of how doctors used to have independent practices and that their used to be this thing called a family practice doctor who took care of the whole patient. Then the government, big pharma, and big insurance collluded to conrol doctors to drive them to work for hospitals or in big groups (they are easier to control that way). The family doctor is “replaced” by hospitalists, nurse practitioners, physician assitants, and other people who have become “primary care providers.” I will tell stories of a time when patients had a choice of doctors from different practices who had different styles and ideas. Doctors who weren’t busy filling out some electronic check list of your symptoms and following cookbook algorithms for your care, and actually took your health problems into consideration for you as a person. By the time my children are old enough for these stories, doctors will work for a place where the ultimate boss is the overpaid medical executive who has no experience taking care of patients and sees doctors and patients as cogs in a corporatist healthcare “system”. A place where medicine has as much freedom as who you choose get your electricty from, but with the convenience and expediency of visiting your local DMV. I will tell stories of a time when medical students thought it was worth it to go into primary care.

  • Wy Woods Harris

    This is my message of mindfulness today!

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