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Working in Clark County: Jaellah Thalberg, genetic counselor with Legacy Health

By , Columbian Staff writer, news assistant
Published:
5 Photos
Jaellah Thalberg, a genetic counselor with the Legacy Health system, is one of two genetic counselors for the system in Clark County. She splits her time between Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center and Legacy Emanuel Medical Center. During the pandemic, she works from her basement office in Hazel Dell.
Jaellah Thalberg, a genetic counselor with the Legacy Health system, is one of two genetic counselors for the system in Clark County. She splits her time between Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center and Legacy Emanuel Medical Center. During the pandemic, she works from her basement office in Hazel Dell. (amanda cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

A genetic counselor might sound like a profession from the distant future, but for 33-year-old Jaellah Thalberg, it’s her full-time job in the now.

Thalberg works at Legacy Health’s Salmon Creek Medical Center advising families in the prenatal realm.

As interest in DNA testing for health and ancestry continues to grow, demand for counseling in a medical setting has too. According to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data, employment of genetic counselors was expected to grow faster than most other occupations — a whopping 21 percent through 2029.

Why would anyone need a genetic counselor?

“It can be helpful for navigating medical care. The reason why we do genetic testing, if we get positive tests, we can do different treatment options and have opportunities to do a follow-up plan for that person and make sure that their screening is happening on time and getting appointments we recommend,” Thalberg said. “It can definitely impact how much or how little intervention people receive.”

Before the pandemic, Thalberg, a Ridgefield native, worked at the hospital. But since her job can be done at home, she’s advising between three to seven patients a day virtually from her basement office in Hazel Dell.

Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center

2211 N.E. 139th St., Vancouver.

www.legacyhealth.org

Number of employees: Two genetic counselors are employed by the Legacy Health system in Clark County, according to Vicki Guinn, spokesperson for Legacy Health.

Bureau of Labor Statistics job outlook: According to 2019 data, employment of genetic counselors was projected to grow 21 percent through 2029. "Ongoing technological innovations, including improvements in lab tests and developments in genomics, which is the study of the whole genome, are giving counselors opportunities to conduct more types of analyses," the bureau reported. The average wage of genetic counselors in Washington was $41.34 per hour or $85,990 per year according to May 2019 data.

“It’s neat to see the directions where genetics has gone and how its expanding, but it’s still about educating people about what to expect,” she said. “We’re a growing profession, and we maybe don’t have all the trained professionals in the field that we’d like to address the number of people who are testing right now.”

The Columbian caught up with Thalberg to learn more.

For those who maybe have never heard of genetic counseling, can you describe what you do?

We are providers in a clinic. We’re not doctors, but we’re part of the team. We help families navigate testing options and family histories related to genetic conditions, birth defects or other things that might be going on. The three most common worlds in genetic counseling are prenatal, pediatric and cancer. But the profession is really diversified. In the last few years, we have genetic counselors that specialize in neurological conditions and other things. We talk about the benefits and limitations to doing genetic testing. Sometimes it doesn’t provide all the answers we hope it does.

What are some of the conditions you come across most often and how do you work with patients to address it?

I am a prenatal genetic counselor, so we talk to families about, like, if they have a family history of certain birth defects, learning disabilities — it’s a broad category. If they want to have a conversation about what testing we offer, and if there’s a known genetic defect in family, what’s the chance for them (to pass it on). I talk about carrier screening, which is a blood draw to see if Mom and Dad are carriers for the same genetic condition. We have blood draws or other tests to test for Down syndrome. We have conversations with some families who say, “This isn’t for me. I don’t want to do anything further,” and they may just do ultrasound.

Did you know?

GINA, or the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, is a federal law passed in 2008 to protect individuals from genetic discrimination in health insurance and employment. The website www.ginahelp.org is a resource to help people understand the law. GINA applies to all employers with 15 or more employees. The National Society of Genetic Counselors offers resources for counseling.

Have you had patients choose to terminate a pregnancy due to information they received?

We’re in maternal fetal medicine, so we support the right to choose. If they choose to keep a pregnancy, we will help them and talk to a pediatrician. Other families may choose to end a pregnancy, and that’s an option as well. It really is patient specific about what that result means for them and how they find value in that information. Some families just use it to be prepared at delivery, to reach out to support groups, to reach out to a pediatrician who specializes in a condition. I would say that’s an atypical scenario to counsel someone who may choose not have further pregnancies.

There are people out there worried about genetic discrimination. What are your thoughts?

I mean, there are laws in place to protect your genetic information against discrimination: the GINA Act. It’s illegal. That is something that comes up in counseling. We talk about what that law protects and the gaps in that law. I have not run into discrimination issues.

What’s your advice to people who are wary?

I’d say to ask your questions. I mean, my role as a genetic counselor isn’t that we’re trying to convince people that genetic testing is right for them — I just want to have a conversation: Is genetic testing in line with your values and goals? If it is, let’s move forward. If you have big concerns about genetic testing, I want to know.

WORKING IN CLARK COUNTY

Working in Clark County, a brief profile of interesting Clark County business owners or a worker in the public, private, or nonprofit sector. Send ideas to Lyndsey Hewitt: lyndsey.hewitt@columbian.com; fax 360-735-4598; phone 360-735-4550.

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