There is a big misconception about genetic counselors. “People think we tell patients to abort their babies, which is not true. Our job is to tell them the facts and give them options, to help them come up with what works best for them,” said Claudia Hernandez, a second year graduate student in the genetic counseling masters program at CSUN.
Genetic counseling is a program in which graduate students learn not only how to distinguish between and diagnose patients with a certain genetic dysfunction, but also how to help families psychologically cope with the results after diagnosis.
CSUN is one of two universities in California that offers this program. University of California, Irvine is the other.
The program was created in 1994, when the department combined the biology, special education, educational psychology and counseling departments to form the genetic counseling field at CSUN.
Director of the department, Dr. Aida Metzenberg, has been running the program since 1995.
“I had done some crisis counseling work with Bay Area Women Against Rape and I had been a biology major in college, so genetic counseling really seemed like the perfect career for me, with its combination of a focus on helping people in trouble and the genetics,” said Metzenberg, who has worked in various clinics and hospitals as a genetic counselor for 12 years and has been teaching for 13 years.
Hernandez, 26, is a Guatemalan native who moved to the United States at age 13 and has lived in the valley ever since. She will be graduating in June and said the program is as time consuming and difficult as it sounds.
“Our day begins at 8 a.m. and goes to 10 p.m. When you are in the master’s program, your life revolves around school and your thesis,” she said.
She reflected back to her first semester in the program and said, “When I was in my first year, I had to take about 19 units and most of the classes were night courses, so we could do rotations during the day.”
Hernandez would go to rotation twice a week from 8 a.m until 5 p.m and attend class afterwards until 10 p.m
“The days we didn’t have rotation we spent in classes. Some of us even had to schedule in work on weekends to pay for school,” she said.
Between classes, Hernandez said she has worked as a student assistant in the genetic counseling program, as a supervisor at the CSUN Fitness Center and is currently a genetics assistant for a prenatal diagnosis center at Good Samaritan Hospital in downtown Los Angeles.
When not at work, in between rotations, or in classes, Hernandez works on her thesis, “Knowledge About the Triple Marker Screening and Anxiety Levels in Pregnant Women From Minority Groups.”
The triple marker screening, according to Hernandez, is a screening test offered to all women in the state of California.It checks for four different conditions: open neural tube defects, down syndrome and two other rare genetic conditions. The study is designed to increase awareness of the levels of understanding of the triple marker screening test and how it correlates to the levels of maternal anxiety caused by a ‘positive’ test result.
The students in the program have become close friends because they have been in all the same classes and worked in the same rotations, so they have learned to lean on each other for support and spend time together in their downtime, said Hernandez
“Even though it’s a high stress time, it is important to take care of yourself and support each other,” she said.
Rotations are a tour of duty that students in the medical field have to do before graduating.
“We do two prenatal rotations, a pediatrics rotation, a cancer rotation, and a lab rotation,” Hernandez said. “We don’t have one medical center where we do our rotations. We work at different clinics and hospitals in Los Angeles.”
Despite all the work Hernandez, who originally wanted to be a doctor, said she enjoyed the work because it combined biology and psychology, her two passions,w
which were also her majors as an undergraduate at CSUN.
“I know many women who go to doctors who don’t speak their language.
I kind of want to empower them. This is a field in which I can give back to my community and see immediate results,” she said.
Being Latina had a lot to do with her decision to go into this line of work.
“Even though there are some minorities in the field, there are not enough and I think it is nice that I can speak Spanish and bring that to my community,” she said.
When asked about the diversity in the field she added, “The field is usually Caucasian women but we have two men. My year of students are pretty diverse.We are lucky to have such a group.”
Not many people know about the genetic counseling field and what the subject matter entails, so the faculty and students from CSUN give presentations at high school, community colleges and even other universities educating them about the program.
“One of the reasons we go out and speak to high schools is because we want to bring in a diverse group of people,” Hernandez said.
The reason she strayed away from becoming a medical doctor was because the field lacked the patient contact and connection she wanted, qualities that genetic counseling offered.
“In my experience I have had to deliver good news and bad news and when I do have to deliver bad news I just think that I’d rather be the one delivering the news because I have gotten to know the patient and can help them cope, whereas a doctor will walk-up and say, ‘I’m sorry, your baby is dead,’ and leave,” she said.
One case that affected Hernandez was when she had to deliver the news to a very young couple that their baby was no longer alive, she said.
“They were referred by their obstetrician an hour before when the baby was still alive. The baby died on the way to our clinic. It was very difficult to tell them, it was the first time
I had to deliver bad news to one of my patients and all the genetics knowledge really becomes secondary when you have to tell a couple that their baby is no longer alive.”
The counseling training, which Hernandez said is what differentiates this field from all other health related professions, it allows them to develop the abilitiy to connect with parents and listen to concerns. This is what helps in situations like these.
“We are a part of a medical team. We are the middle person between the hospital and the ordinary person,” she added.