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Adding medical history to our searches

There was a time when I hated my grandmother.

Cursed her name.

Wished I could have been anyone else’s grandchild… but not hers.

gallbladderI never met the woman, mind you. Marie Margarethe (Nuckel) Geissler, my father’s mother, died before I was born.1

But her legacy to me still had me gritting my teeth.

When I wasn’t writhing in pain.

The first time I had an attack of what I later came to curse Marie for, I was 20 years old, at the lowest weight I’d ever achieve as an adult, and with no kids. So, the doctors of years ago assured me, it couldn’t be gallbladder disease. That, those same doctors assured me, was a disease of those who were fat, 40 years old and with four kids.2

Or, one of them mentioned in passing, an inherited condition.

But I wasn’t a genealogist then. And nobody had ever said anything about any family medical conditions.

Over the next decade, I had episode after episode of abdominal pain that left me writhing, often in tears. Because the attacks were shortlived, I could rarely get in to see a doctor before the pain stopped, and my hectic frenetic lifestyle led one doctor after another to suggest nerves — or anxiety — or an incipient ulcer, even.

So when an attack came on, I self-medicated. Cream soups. Ice cream. Anything like that, that would be soothing.

In other words, exactly the wrong thing to do when the culprit really is gallbladder disease.

Finally the day came when I had a dentist’s appointment, and the dental tech draped that heavy lead-lined apron over me… and it pressed against that dratted gallbladder. I remember promising whatever Powers That Be might have been paying attention that if I could get out of that office without embarrassing myself, I would go to another doctor and insist that it was time, finally, to get an answer.

One doctor’s visit and one x-ray later, and I was scheduled for a cholecystectomy — gallbladder removal. The night after I met with the surgeon, I had dinner with my father and stepmother.

“Gallbladder?” my father said. “My mother had that.”

Yes, indeed, my paternal grandmother had bequeathed to me a number of things:

• A tendency towards … um …there really isn’t a polite way of saying fat thighs…
• Thick German eyebrows.
• A love of strawberries.
• And … sigh … the inherited version of gallbladder disease.

And that was the moment when I really hated my grandmother.

Turns out I had at least one more ancestor to blame, and not even on my father’s side.

My great grandfather Jasper Robertson, my mother’s mother’s father, died in 1912 of an abscess of the liver “complicated with cholescistitis”3 — spelled correctly, that’s cholecystitis, or inflammation of the gallbladder.

Still, looking back on it from today’s perspective, the whole thing sure underscored why part of what we do in researching our family history should be researching our family medical history.

That’s abundantly clear for those with inherited genetic diseases like Parkinson’s Disease.

But it should be just as true for those of us with … sigh … gallbladder disease. Or heart disease. Or any of a hundred or more other things that we might be able to do something about if only the family history were known.

Something else to add to our reasonably exhaustive search.


Image: Adapted from Bruce Blaus via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)

  1. Illinois Department of Public Health, death certificate no. 12011, Marie Geissler, 12 Jan 1947; Division of Vital Statistics, Springfield.
  2. “In medical school, the ‘five F’s’ help doctors to remember the usual patient with gallbladder disease: ‘fair, fat, forty, fertile and female.’ Sexist as it sounds, it describes the group most frequently affected by gallbladder disease: overweight middle-aged white women with a history of several pregnancies.” Ronald Hoffman, “Gallbladder disease,” Intellligent Medicine ( : accessed 16 May 2014).
  3. Oklahoma State Board of Health, death certificate no. 3065, Jasper C. Robertson, 15 March 1912; Bureau of Vital Statistics, Oklahoma City.
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