What's a family history consultation like?

Last month, the winner of a family history contest in Utah, received his prize: a personal consultation with a family history specialist and genealogist. The story, reported by the company providing the service, is copied below, with permission of the authors, Jim and Mary Petty:

Through the Utah Department of Health’s Chronic Disease Genomics Program, Utahns are encouraged “to know your past to benefit your future”. In the words of the Washington Post (February 26, 2002): “The Family Tree has become the most important genetic test of all. The more you know, the more tools you have to practice preventive medicine.” The Genomics program has promoted the goal “Make Family Health History a Tradition” through a variety of initiatives, publications, and even a contest.

In late 2006 they held the statewide “Tell Us Your Story” contest to motivate the citizenry to learn life-saving family health history information for themselves and their family and then share their story with other Utahns. This contest included an incentive for the winners: those who prepared and submitted an account or essay about what they learned about their family health history and how their family has been impacted by their family health history, might get their story in the newspaper, on the radio, Internet, or even on TV, and 10 lucky winners could win a professional genealogy family history research prize!

HEIRLINES Family History and Genealogy, Inc’s President and career professional genealogist, James W. Petty, AG®, CG (SM) (www.heirlines.com), offered 10 one-hour free consultation sessions (a prize valued @ $150 per winner) at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. The success of this unique prize offering is worth sharing.

The first winner of this contest was Eugene, and his wife Rose. Max related how he suffered from a degenerative neurological disorder that restricts his ability to walk. The same condition is in three of his living relatives, and has appeared in his ancestry, first identified with a great grandmother, and an uncle, and other cousins.

Eugene and Rose, and their daughter met with James W. Petty, AG, CG, at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City in the early afternoon of Friday, February 09, 2007, to discuss their family’s interests in Family Health History, and how genealogy research could be conducted to expand their knowledge about their family as well as about the medical affliction that was of such concern to them. Mr. Petty expressed his interest in the situation, but noted very clearly that he was a Professional Genealogy Researcher, and not a medical specialist, or even capable to instruct the family about the medical or scientific aspects of the case, except to offer ideas that could be asked of their medical providers.

The following recommendations were made by Mr. Petty about the genealogy and other issues of concern to the family:

  • The family line in question was on Eugene’s maternal lineage. It was noted that Neurologists treating Eugene, had stated that they did not know the cause of his condition, nor did they even have a name for it. Mr. Petty expressed the opinion that with greater information regarding the extent of the medical condition among Eugene’s extended family, medical science might be able to discover a cause and cure for the affliction. Therefore it was recommended that Eugene’s family, and those willing to work with them, identify all of the descendants of their 3rd Great Grandfather, Thomas, who was the first of the family to settle in Utah with his children. This meant all of the people in the scope of this project would have a Utah origin which would make it easier to find and identify ancestry.
  • Genealogy research in federal, state, local, and church records available at the Family History Library would then help the family identify descendants of their ancestors.
  • Upon identifying the extended family it would be possible to obtain health information about Thomas’s descendants through several sources available to the public. Death records for the State of Utah are now available on the Internet, free of charge at http://historyresearch.utah.gov/indexes. The family can search this site for the deaths of all descendants of their ancestors who died between 1905, when state recorded death records began, and 1954. These records will provide personal and genealogical information, but will also identify the understood cause of death, which might describe a form of the condition that seems prevalent in their family.
  • The next step was to search newspaper obituaries for the State of Utah at either the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, or at the Utah State Archives, or the University of Utah where copies of all newspapers in Utah are available on microfilm. With death dates of ancestors and relatives, obituaries of these people can be seen in the newspapers, which may provide a description of the cause of death (not as commonly found today as it was prior to 1970). This way they may be able to recognize symptoms of the medical condition in other relatives.
  • All of this research would lead the family to discovering living relatives on extended family lines, with whom they could share information and receive information about family health. They might then learn about other relatives with the same medical conditions as they had, and learn additional information that might help their doctors to discover more about their illness.
  • In addition, it was recommended that information about their disease / condition be reported on appropriate Internet message or blog sites. Millions of people across the country read these message boards, and shared discussion of the family’s medical condition might generate discussion with other people experiencing the same condition. This could open up new information that could be shared with the medical specialists who can discover new treatments and cures.

Eugene was very excited about the possibilities this discussion provided him. He recognized that he might not find the cure to his condition in his lifetime, but that his children or grandchildren might genetically carry the condition, and a cure could save them from being bedridden or disabled.

James W. Petty and Heirlines were able to provide guidance regarding family history and genealogy study that would assist these people in discovering their family health history. Neither medical, nor scientific instructions were provided, as Mr. Petty noted that he was not qualified to offer this. However, the professional genealogy information given to the family, did give them encouragement and renewed hope for discovering answers about their family health concerns. They are better prepared to go back to their doctors to work together to find solutions to the disease that has afflicted their family for generations.

Readers will note that I have included the name of the company providing the service--contrary to my usual practice. I am not endorsing this company or its work, just acknowledging the free service they provided.

You can read Eugene's story--and the stories of a number of other people who have had their lives touched by genetics--by clicking on the Your Stories tab at the top of the page. You are also welcome to submit your own story--no names necessary in or after the story, although you will be asked to give us your name and e-mail address so we can confirm that you posted the story and not someone else.

Marie Godfrey, PhD


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