Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Don't Take Knowledge of Your DNA for Granted!

From the time she was very little, many people have told me that my oldest daughter shares many of my mannerisms and facial expressions.  Although we do share certain traits or even looks- as parents and children  often do- she doesn't have my hair color or eye color.  She definitely gets those from her birthmother. 

My youngest children happen to both be blonde, blue eyed, and fair-skinned- like me- yet they don't get that from me either.  My little boy not only shares my sensitive skin, but a sometimes overly sensitive and cautious spirit, and a propensity to allergies and autoimmune issues with me.  His little sister, on the other hand, has always been much more carefree and impulsive by nature.  And when I use the term "by nature" I mean it quite literally as I can see much of her birthmother's personality in her: wanting to do whatever is the most fun or adventurous at the moment despite the consequences that follow. 

I was able to get to know the birthmother of my two youngest children over the course of a year and a half when they were in our care as our foster children.  I knew our youngest daughter's medical history from the beginning since we brought her home from the hospital as a newborn.

However, there were some questions about my son's first year of life and medical background to which I didn't have answers.  There have been more than one assessment and a few medical questionnaires/exams for my son where I honestly couldn't answer all the questions on a form or from a health professional, such as "Does this child have a family history of deafness?"  "Was this child full-term gestation at birth?"  "Was the birth vaginal or Casearean?" 

I would have to leave a big question mark for the answer or hesitantly answer, "I . . . don't know." because I honestly didn't know.

In fact, I don't think it was until my son had been living with us for almost a year as our foster child that I was able to learn about his birth history from his birthmother.  Unlike his preemie sister, it turns out that he was born full-term (overdue, technically) and yes, it was a vaginal delivery.  I felt a little intrusive for asking such personal questions but it was a necessity.  You see, when Jack was just a toddler he ended up in the hospital after a couple of visits to the E.R. to be treated for a somewhat rare and potentially serious (but fortunately very treatable) autoimmune disease.  Although Jack's birthmom was always invited, she rarely showed up for his other doctor's appointments and medical check-ups.  However, the gravity of the situation really scared her and she did all in her power to be by her baby's side during his time in the hospital.

The first couple of days that Jack was in the hospital a team of doctors were trying to assess his symptoms and come up with a correct diagnosis.   Something was definitely wrong with him- it was just a matter of finding out what it was so that he could be properly treated and find some relief.

The team of doctors and interns would speculate and debate about a diagnosis: "It could be this, but then again, it could be this."  Nothing could be done but more tests, more observation, and more waiting.  With all the uncertainty it was extremely helpful, and I might add, quite a relief, to have Jack's birth mother and birth grandmother be at the hospital when they could to help fill in the gaps about questions regarding his family medical history since I sure couldn't.  Sure- after working with them for over a year I would have been able to tell the doctors about my foster son's birth parents social histories, mental health histories, heck- even their criminal backgrounds-  but as far as complete family medical histories- which was precisely what was needed at the time- I just. didn't. know.

Knowing your family medical history is not only helpful but can literally be a life-saver in some cases.  Unfortunately, parents with adopted children don't always know their child's family medical history if the adoption is closed and/or if the child's birth parents and relatives are deceased or cannot be contacted. 

One possible solution to such a dilemma is DNA testing.  The technology is WAY above my head and I am baffled about all of the discoveries that can be made about someone simply by analyzing their spit in a little tube!

I loved this clip which I saw just this month:

DNA Testing not only reveals a person's ethnic heritage, but also gives clues to which medical conditions they may have a predisposition towards.  Because I'm not adopted, I have always known my family medical history (or at least been in a position where I can simply ask my mom or dad which diseases or ailments run in our family OR learn that info from another family member).

Consider this example:

"Mary- if you ever find yourself in an emergency room with crippling pain- maybe even so bad you think you might be having a HEART ATTACK- be sure to tell the doctors that you have four sisters and a mom who have all had their gallbladders removed."  

That was my sister's advice to me years ago after undergoing surgery to have her gallbladder removed.   And since my sister is a nurse as well she used the occasion to educate me about the risk factors for gallbladder problems- the Four "F"s: female, forty, fat, and fertile.  I still remain the only one of my mother's daughters who hasn't had to have my gallbladder removed (Knock on Wood).  I joke that it is because, unlike my four sisters, I don't share the risk factor of being fertile.  I guess you could say that is one instance where my infertility has actually worked to my advantage.

Perhaps I will never have gallstones as my mother, sisters, many cousins, and a few nieces have- but it's good to be aware that it runs in my family just in case it does happen.  My mom has always told us that any stomach problems we may have- including gallbladder problems, acid reflux, indigestion, polyps, and, unfortunately, stomach cancer, come from her side of the family.  I have my dad, on the other hand, to blame for my sinus and allergy problems.   Thanks a lot, Dad!  

But it's not just medical conditions or strictly biological traits that I have inherited from my parents. Just as I have blue eyes like my dad I've also inherited his love of books and learning.  Although it's hard to tell if it's a matter of nature or nurture I'd like to think that I get my love of children, the ability to see humor in situations, and the natural ability to make others feel welcome and at ease from my mother.

Aside from knowing one's medical family history discovering one's ETHNICITY and HERITAGE is another miracle of DNA testing.  Both of my parents happen to love family history so I am fortunate to have access to copies of their numerous genealogy charts, family histories, documents and a few pictures which have been passed down through the generations. 

As for my heritage, I have always been particularly proud of my Scottish lineage.  When I hear bagpipes- I kid you not- I feel a physiological change take place inside of me and I'm immediately filled with a sense of both pride and reverence.  I am also proud to be English, Welsh, and Manx.  (And here's a confession in case anyone's not familiar with the term "Manx"- I didn't even know where the Isle of Mann was until my dad taught us about one of our revered forebears and his life's experiences.)

Much of my ancestry is what some might characterize as boringly British (don't get me wrong- I love the British Isles- and am particularly fond of English literature and history, but it just seems like Brits are just so WHITE and un-exotic).  Therefore, I was ECSTATIC to learn through my father's research on his lines, that I have African heritage (albeit South African) and even a very teeny-tiny small percentage of Bengal Indian in me!

I know these parts of my identity and can celebrate them because they've been passed down to me.  But not everyone- whether adopted or not- does know their heritage or ethnicity.  Once again, a solution to this is DNA testing.

Although I've never taken any DNA tests before, I know that offers DNA testing kits for $99 which is less expensive but perhaps less extensive than DNA testing from 23andme.  I have also heard that offers half-price specials around the Christmas holidays and have known of more than one adoptive parent who has bought a kit for their child for the sole purpose of discovering their ancestry.

DNA Testing or tracing your family history through research are definitely something to look into for anyone who wants to discover their roots!

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