Rebekah Hutchins, MS, GC
is a Perinatal Genetic Counselor at Northside Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia.
Why did you choose to become a genetic counselor?
I kind of discovered genetic counseling on a fluke. I took an occupations test in middle school as part of a computer class. The top three results were park ranger, tattoo artist and genetic counselor. I had never heard of genetic counseling until then, so I began researching. A profession that combined my love of science, specifically genetics and helping people, sounded perfect for me. I later told my parents of my discovery and they informed me that when they were pregnant with me, they met with a genetic counselor and that she was very helpful. My parents were aware that my dad had sickle cell trait but didn’t know my mother had hemoglobin C trait and they weren’t screening for hemoglobin variants at the time, so my diagnosis came as a surprise.
Can you tell us about your current role?
I am currently a Perinatal Genetic Counselor at Northside Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia. Prior to this position I was a Perinatal Genetic Counselor in Honolulu, Hawaii. I’ve only wanted to work in the prenatal specialty.
What has it been like for you having sickle cell disease?
Well I don't know what life is without sickle cell. There aren’t many things that my sickle cell limits me from doing. There are definitely precautions that I have to take to keep myself healthy. I think it's safe to say some things have been more difficult for me than for others. Navigating the medical system, appointments, medications, playing catch up after missing school are a few things that most people without chronic illnesses do not have to think much of but were constant issues for me. I am grateful to have had parents that advocated for me in school and in medical settings. And teaching me that taking care of myself is always a top priority. It’s always ten times harder to do something when you're not feeling well.
How has having sickle cell disease influenced your work as a genetic counselor?
It has definitely made me more empathic to my patients and their situations. Medical settings can be scary, and most people are just trying to get through doctor visits. So, receiving bad news or having to have a procedure is a different level of stress and anxiety. Exercising patience while helping a patient manage that stress and anxiety is essential in my work. Having experience with being a patient and a medical professional, I truly understand the value of just listening to your patient and hearing them out despite your own agenda. While we may be experts in genetics, they are experts in their own life.
What advice/tips would you like to share with other people who have sickle cell disease based on your experience and your knowledge as a genetic counselor?
Advocate for yourself! You are truly in control of managing your health. If you are not comfortable with your doctor’s recommendations, speak up and ask questions. You also have a right to refuse services. Unless it is a life-threatening situation doctors and other healthcare professionals are just here to provide information and make sure you know your options.
What advice/tips would you like to share with providers who encounter individuals with sickle cell disease?
Stop treating all sickle cell patients as though they are drug seekers. If they present to you with pain, treat their pain without questioning their intentions. They need care, not an interrogation. Although sickle cell has been known to the medical community for a while there are still new treatments and preventative care for these patients. Do some research. Have a discussion with your patient about their triggers to pain and what things aside from pain medications help ease pain or prevent pain episodes before they present to an ER.
Any guidance you would like to share with prospective genetic counselors who have sickle cell disease or other genetic conditions?
Again, advocate for yourself! There are all kinds of resources for people with disabilities and/or chronic illnesses to aid in your success. Let your story be your fuel. And when it is appropriate, share your story to inspire others. You have a unique perspective that not many people share.
Is there was any other advice you would like to give to GCs, or prospective GCs outside of sickle cell/chronic condition?
I would encourage others to be the change they want to see in our field and the world. It might not seem like it but being a medical professional comes with power. Use it to better care of all. There is so much disparity in our country's medical system. From access to proper insurance coverage, to literally how patients are treated differently due to their race or background. Being healthy and maintaining that health is empowering in its own way, and empowered people have the potential to change society.
ABGC Spotlight is a monthly series that features Diplomates, health care professionals
and students sharing their unique experiences with genetic counseling.