Monthly Archives: February 2014

Medical History: Adoptees Fill in the Blanks

Every time we turn around, we hear about the importance of family medical history. Yet for adoptees, these facts are missing or at best incomplete.

A couple of recent  situations reminded me how little I know about my family medical history.

Leafing through Better Homes and Gardens on the subway, an article about heart disease caught my eye.

“When it comes to heart disease, what runs in your family matters—a lot,” the article began. “Studies show that if one of your parents had a heart attack or stroke, your own risk for these conditions can double, and having a brother or sister with the disease ups your chances of having a heart attack, too.”

I turned the page. Another article suggested talking to relatives about diseases that run in the family and then telling your doctor, who can use the information to recommend lifestyle  changes or screenings. “So grab a pen and paper and start interviewing Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa, and everyone in between,” the article said.

Yeah, right. Like I can pick up the phone and get the scoop on family health conditions just like that. The writer is obviously not adopted.

On another day, sitting in an office in Manhattan, my doctor and I tried to calculate my lifetime risk of developing breast cancer. Lillian, my mother, died of breast cancer at the age of 48 and that’s why I made this appointment. I have no idea how old Lillian was when she was first diagnosed with the disease so I couldn’t answer my doctor’s question about age of onset. Hell, I didn’t know about my adoption until 11 years ago and didn’t know Lillian’s name until 2012. By the time I found out about her, Lillian had been gone for nearly 30 years.

I recalled hearing from a relative that Lillian had battled cancer for quite a while.  How long is quite a while? Let’s say my mother had the disease for seven years, I told my doctor.  She knew I was guessing and she wasn’t pleased. My doctor quizzed me about the other members of my family who had the disease. I don’t know, I don’t know, I said. My blood relatives are strangers to me.

I knew what my doctor was thinking: you should know your family history! I am adopted, I said, feeling compelled to defend my ignorance.

pic for medical history article
Courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net/Grant Cochrane

As we wrapped up our meeting, my doctor commented on how frustrating this lack of history must be for adopted people.

Yup, adoptees from the sealed records era run into these situations all the time. We don’t have family gossip stored in our memories because we never had a chance to talk with our biological kin. We can’t answer doctors’ questions with actual knowledge. We are clueless about our family histories.

In recent months, I’ve learned a few things about the health issues that run on my mother’s side of the family.  Lillian, in addition to breast cancer, struggled with alcohol and probably bipolar disorder. At least one of her brothers struggled with bipolar disorder, too. Lillian’s father, George, also had a drinking problem. My half-sister has diabetes and suffered a mild stroke some years ago.

What little I know about my mother and her relatives seems like a treasure chest of facts compared to what I have on my father and his family – absolutely nothing.

This problem is finally getting attention from the outside world. New Jersey lawmakers are considering legislation that would allow adoptees to gain access to their medical histories along with their original birth certificates.  I say it’s about time.

In the absence of information, I will do what I can to keep heart attacks, strokes and other bad stuff away.  Healthy genes, heart attack genes, mystery genes – whatever I inherited doesn’t have to dictate what’s going to strike me five, 10 or 20 years from now.

I try to take care of myself by making (mostly) healthy choices. Today I have a head cold. Part of me wants to take a nap, the other part of me thinks it’s time to get up, stretch my legs and have a glass of water with another shot of cold medicine.  It’s snowing and 27 degrees outside but a walk might do me good and get my mind off the things over which I have no control.

Original Birth Certificates: A Basic Right for Adoptees

Maybe I hit a nerve. After posting an article on the importance of original birth certificates, I heard from many adoptees who are fed up with birth certificate laws that keep them from learning basic truths about their origins.

“At 47, doesn’t the Legislature think I am old enough to know where I come from?” one reader wrote. “It’s crazy! I was born in North Dakota. Getting information from them is worse than pulling teeth.

“Over the 30 years I’ve been searching, I have learned I have a sister who’s a year older than me who was also given up. You’d think maybe they would offer up a little information about her, but no such luck. I wasn’t even given a birth month, just a year. North Dakota is as old fashioned as they get. I doubt they will ever give up the information. At my age, medical information is almost a must.”

These restrictive laws are on the books in many states. (If you wonder whether you can get your original birth certificate, here is a state-by-state summary from the American Adoption Congress.)

As if it’s not bad enough that adoptees can’t get their hands on these documents, many have resorted to expensive alternate routes to obtain a few facts about their births. It’s not unusual at all for adoptees to shell out several hundreds of dollars for court fees and confidential intermediaries. Responsible adults who have jobs, families and homes of their own have to spend big bucks just to get a few tidbits of information about their births and birth parents. Of course, those who don’t have the money are completely out of luck. This is not right.

me and the BC bestI am one of the lucky adoptees. I was born in Illinois, which recently unsealed original birth certificates for adopted people. A couple of years ago, I sent the Illinois Department of Public Health a check for $15 or $20. Months later, I had a non-certified copy of my birth certificate.  That document revealed my birth mother’s maiden name, married name, age, address and her place of birth. With that information, I began my search for more facts about blood relatives. Thanks to that piece of paper and a wonderful search angel, I have been able to learn many important things about medical and family history.

As far as birth certificate access goes, Illinois was ahead of New York, the state where I currently live. I am glad to see the Empire State moving in the right direction. Here’s a great 20-minute video on the New York state adoptee bill of rights featuring comments from birth parents and adoptees.