Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Linking Personal Experience, Medicine, and History

Display about nurses at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center

I work with records of all types, but when it comes right down to it, I am a liberal arts girl at heart. On a personal level, I have always taken the most interest in archives related to women or records describing the building of community culture. Medicine was a realm reserved for my sister, who is a doctor. But, when I first walked into the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire this summer to manage a major personal health issue, it was their appreciation for their history that first welcomed me. I began a journey that raised my consciousness about medicine and medical history more than I ever could have imagined.

The original Dartmouth Medical College
At Dartmouth, images of the original Mary Hitchcock Center are displayed prominently on their walls. It was with intense interest that I first walked in and examined a display of early medical equipment and nursing gear that was used in the hospital from its inception in 1893. Here I was entering an unknown and frightening world, but right off the bat was being offered something with which I could identify. Admittedly, all my life hospitals have been one of my least favorite places to be, but I felt like I was being welcomed by an old friend and my previous interactions with medical archives came to my mind. I felt comfortably linked to what was before me and it helped me face my fears on a more intellectual level. It helped me to let go of emotion to realize how my current situation fits into the history of this place, my family, and of other communities.

Lobyb of Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, displaying
with pride their long and successful history. 
I have previously written briefly about my current health issues. The situation has had such a major impact on me that it will likely become a regular part of my presentations discussing personal archives, including “Life in Context” and “Preserving Memories”.  I went through what all women fear and am coming out the other end with some major intervention, but I am doing just fine. My body has had a lot of work done, but I no longer fear the kind of intervention I needed for my continued good health. And to link this with my work examining communities, I can say that I better see my interests inextricably linked with doctors and think there is a lot that liberal arts types such as myself can do with them to help others through experiences similar to mine. History is what binds us. Recognizing that others have gone through this before me, that technology has improved treatment, and that my own situation can help others who come after me seems like an important thread in medical treatment, in understanding our place in a historic timeline, and in cultivating a better sense of self awareness on an individual level.

Health concerns are and have always been central to our lives as humans. Our health issues are well documented in the letters we write, the diary entries we make, and the public records kept about our circumstances. I have encountered many such records in archives across New England. Hospital archives, government records, and personal papers all retain valuable information that can help us link ourselves to the medical community in a more personal way and to a larger history. Our emotional health benefits from evaluating these connections. This kind of thinking, I believe, has also made my physical recovery easier.

Health records I have encountered in my journeys include a diary from Maine that I found this past spring in a local antique shop. The diary clearly emphasizes the importance of health to its writer. In it, the author regularly records the diseases of his friends and acquaintances and the deaths of neighbors. One entry reads, “January 13, 1882 Uncle Joe Cousens is very sick with Brights disease of kidneys and cannot live long.” The diary lists many diseases with strange names, but with a little research, it is clear that though the names are unusual, the diseases themselves are still well-known today under pseudonyms more familiar to the non-medical community. (Brights Disease is kidney disease, for example. Here’s an online dictionary of 19th century medical terms that makes an interesting read in case you want to look more into this.) When we consider modern society, we can realize that these diseases are still part of daily life and still part of our conversation.

Another set of medical records that stand out in my mind were encountered in my first professional job as an archivist. The Waltham Public Llibrary kept some early twentieth century health records from the area. As I remember them, they included quarantine information and I read with interest the journey of the flu pandemic of 1918 through this community located just outside of Boston. The entries tracked one by one the individuals who were afflicted by the outbreak. These record books are a valuable piece of information about an important worldwide event, linking the local population to a larger global event. History helps us appreciate the magnitude of “the flu” and our fight against it through time. It is a fight that we still face almost 100 years later.

As part of my personal journey, I have been recording what is happening to me in my diary and in an art journal. Someday, this may serve to help other family members better understand what I have gone through so they can be better prepared for their own personal journey. Creating documentation has also been valuable to me to look back on what has happened to me this summer to see how I moved from fear to resolve. I am proud of the decisions I have made that relied on the input of my healthcare professionals and a learned understanding of my family health heritage. I am now more aware of the health documentation I see around me. I am attuned to the medical messages of modern culture while I contemplate how this field of medicine has come so far. Like Dartmouth, I hope that other such institutions take time to reflect on their past to help patients realize that they are part of a miraculous evolving history.

In conclusion, I wish to give a great big thank you to the Doctors of Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center. You are my heroes. Thank you for caring about my emotional health as well as my physical health. From you I have not only benefited physically, but I have learned so much. I will be forever grateful.

Knowing your own family health history is important. Here are some resources to help you understand its value. They will also help you consider and gather the information you need to know your medical risks and to understand the role this history plays in your life.

American Ancestors – New England Historic Genealogical Society - Family Health and Genealogy: Compiling a Family Health History 

Mayo Clinic - Medical history: Compiling your medical family tree

Surgeon General’s Family Health History Initiative

Treasure Maps Genealogy Blog Why You Should Research Your Family History AND Your Family HEALTH History


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