Family Medical History Unknown

“Family medical history unknown…So, what…Are you adopted or something?”

Having dealt with an autoimmune disease for the past two-and-a-half years, I have since seen my share of doctors’ offices and hospital rooms. The one thing I have yet to become accustomed to are the reactions I receive from doctors and nurses when they see “unknown” written next to the dreaded family medical history question on their medical forms.

I have seen the most stoic and poised doctors turn into complete stuttering messes when searching for words to say once I have told them I am adopted. Some doctors insist on pressing me for more information—as though it is completely unfathomable to them that I would have no knowledge of my family medical history. Some doctors can’t move on from that question fast enough and proceed to stare at my chart throughout the duration of my appointment. The adoption-competent doctors take my answer in stride and continue to treat me like a human being who deserves the best medical care they have to offer.

Adoption is a very prevalent method of forming families today. Some adoptees are very comfortable talking about adoption, while others are not. Pressing an adoptee about his or her unknown family medical history will not suddenly awaken his or her memories. We are not withholding knowledge or repressing memories about whether or not diabetes or heart disease run in our birth families. We simply do not know the information.

While it would be wonderful if all medical personnel were adoption-competent, I realize how difficult and unrealistic it would be to educate all of them on adoption issues. As an adoptee, all I want is to be treated like a human being, especially when I am in a situation where my sons (yes, I run into this issue with my sons, as well) or I am in need of medical care. The last thing I need is for my doctor to look at me like I descended from aliens because I don’t know my medical history. (I can assure you, my blood will be red when you perform that blood draw.) I am not ashamed of being adopted. But, when doctors refuse to look me in the eye after I tell them I am adopted, it makes me wonder if there is something wrong with me. Not knowing my medical history may make life more difficult for doctors in terms of diagnoses, but I shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed or less than human for not having the information.

A “simple” solution would be to add an “unknown” option to the family medical history section on medical forms. Doing so could make life easier for adoptees AND medical personnel and could potentially save all of us from the uncomfortable discussion about adoption and unknown family medical history. If we can tolerate those awesomely stylish medical gowns, the least thing you can do is add one additional question to your form, right?


15 thoughts on “Family Medical History Unknown

  1. This is a wonderful post and has happened to me many, many times. A doctor will ask my medical history and I’ll say, “I don’t know, I’m adopted.” The looks are utterly priceless. It would be terrific if they were all adoption competent, but I don’t think that will happen. I mean, do they get flustered when they have two dads in their room with their child? How did that child get there? Immaculate conception and a complete turning inside out of the parent’s reproductive organs???

  2. Yes!! I’m a foster parent and I have to answer “unknown” to so many questions. I’m also an adoptive parent and I feel bad not having the answers. Here’s to doing whatever it takes to open the eyes of the medical community!!

  3. Kim Stevens says:

    Hey woman – this is a really important advocacy effort to take on. I do believe we can find some allies in two weeks who can tell us how to connect with the Academy of Pediatrics and the AMA to get your blog posted in medical journals, etc., etc. “Important” is even inadequate to describe the issue.

    • Ohmigosh, yes! I’d love to join the advocacy effort! Let’s talk more about this in a couple of weeks. And, in the meantime, please let me know if there is anything I can do!

  4. Melissa O says:

    Love reading your blog and finally have the courage to write. I am the ever grateful adoptive mom of 2 kids. Because both of my children are caucasian and fair like me, most don’t believe that my children are adopted. I can’t tell you the number of times that professionals have said the dumbest, most hurtful things concerning adoption. I realize most will never realize the long last effects of their words.
    I so enjoy reading your diary because I long to be the best mom I can. And that involves helping them with emotions and feelings that I will never be able to fully understand. You are giving me a glimpse into the hidden thoughts of my kids. Thank you for sharing yourself!

    • Thank you so much for your comment, Melissa! It sounds like you are a wonderful mom and an amazing advocate for your children. Thank you for reading my blog, and being open to learning about adoption from a different perspective! It means more than you could know! Blessings to you and your family!!

  5. cari says:

    I just found your website and I thank you for your words and perspective. We recently adopted 2 brothers from foster care and we know nothing about their family history. I live in the deep south and surprisingly we have had nothing but positive comments from doctors, teachers, and the community as a whole. If anyone is being negative about adopting older “system kids” they are sure doing a great job of hiding it! I just thought I would share that piece of happy news about people’s perception of adoption in the most unlikely place!

  6. I feel like adoption would be something covered in medical care. I worked in a hospital for a bit, and even though I was never, ever going to be talking to patients, I still had to go through some training, including being taught how to appropriately handle having a translator involved. If a low-level person who was never supposed to talk to patients had to learn how to deal with translators, it seems like doctors taking medical histories should know how to act appropriately when someone says they don’t have their medical history.

    But training certainly doesn’t mean competency. And competency doesn’t always mean sensitivity or empathy or common sense.

    Anyway, I’m sorry you have to deal with stupid people being stupid =(

    • I completely agree! I don’t know what training medical professionals receive, but I do know that I am constantly hearing about the lack of adoption competency in the medical world. Love this: “But training certainly doesn’t mean competency. And competency doesn’t always mean sensitivity or empathy or common sense.” You absolutely hit the nail on the head! Thank you!!

  7. Kelly R says:

    I’m late to the party on this one. I guess I’ve never noticed how the doctor handles the “unknown” answer (I’ve mostly experienced doctors who don’t look at me much, not sure if it’s because I have also been fat my entire life or if it’s the “unknown”…or if they just don’t look at their patients much).

    I was wondering how YOU want them to deal with that “unknown.” I ask because I suddenly had one doctor who wanted to test me early (before the recommended age guidelines unless you have a family history) a few years ago, and another one who did the same just awhile ago. I think maybe they’re treating “unknown” family history as an actual unknown; meaning there’s a possibility of a family history of this issue or that instead of in the past when doctors took “unknown” to mean “no” bad history. Should we, as “unknown” adoptees, push doctors to be put into the testing patterns for those with family history? or assume we’re good to go? I’m torn between unecessary tests and waiting too long. I’m basically healthy, but so was my biological family until about my age when it all seemed to fall apart! So, just wondering what anyone else thought.

  8. Kelly R says:

    Sorry…when I said “biological family” I actually meant “adoptive family.”
    My family is my family and I’m not used to differentiating them. So, to clarify, I do not know my medical history from my biological family (sealed adoption many years ago). I only know that my family (adoptive) was healthy when I was born and fell apart with lots of medical issues since I was born.

    • N says:

      I appreciate your post. I’m a medical student and I have seen a few charts with the word adopted written next to the family history section. It has never fazed me. However, I haven’t actually met a patient who told me they’re adopted so I will have to be cognizant of my reaction in the future. Thanks for sharing 🙂

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