Life As a Genetic Counselor

You’re a What? A. Genetic. Counselor.

The Ho Family Tree created by Amanda Ho. Photo Credit: Deborah Ho

The Ho Family Tree created by Amanda Ho. Photo Credit: Deborah Ho

“So what made you decide to be a genetic counselor? “

Like many other genetic counselors, I get this question quite often. In professional settings as well as personal conversations. And while I’ve shared most of the reasons, there is one reason I’ve not shared before but feel inclined to do so, this Thanksgiving eve.

As I entered my senior year of college, I jumped the medical school train and decided to instead pursue a career in genetic counseling. You can imagine the distraught this brought to my parents — a what?! It wasn’t that I wanted to rebel against my parents’ hopes and dreams for me or that I didn’t think I could cut it in med school. So why?

In those four short years of college, I lost two grandfathers. The first, Grandpa Quach, died suddenly in my freshman year after what was relayed to me as a “heart attack”. He had never been sick and always in my mind had been very healthy. About two years later, I lost my paternal grandfather. Grandpa Ho had been experiencing dementia for some time before other ailments began to take effect. Losing a grandparent was not a new experience. I had lost my maternal grandmother due to complications with diabetes when I was in my teens. But now I was dealing with deaths in the family, 300+ miles away from my parents and sisters, and as an adult.

Grandpa and Grandma Quach with their kids. Photo Credit: Julie Tran and Hollie Quach

Grandpa and Grandma Quach with their kids. Photo Credit: Julie Tran and Hollie Quach

Grandpa Ho. Photo credit: Thomas Ho

Grandpa Ho. Photo credit: Thomas Ho

In the midst of losing both my grandfathers, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Away from home for the first time and brought up with the belief that its best to not talk about personal matters, I struggled with the losses and feared what was going to happen to my mom internally. How can she have cancer, she is so young? Was she going to be okay? Are my sisters and I at risk for breast cancer too? Did Grandpa Q really die from a heart attack or was there something else going on? Was Grandpa Ho ever diagnosed with Alzheimer or was that just speculation? Does anyone else in the family have diabetes? So many questions but not quite sure where to get answers.

For the longest time, and still to this day, I’ve chalked up not knowing or not having the guts to ask the personal questions to the gap in communication that can occur between generations — mine, my parents and grandparents — but also on the gap that occurs as a result of a language barrier and perhaps even cultural barrier. Being a part of the American-born generation in my family, I embarrassingly cannot speak Chinese or Vietnamese fluently but understand both languages well. As you can imagine asking personal and medical history questions to your parents, grandmother, aunts and uncles whose first language is not your own, well, is not easy. Its well beyond time to move pass the excuses.

So while gathering with your families for the holidays, take the time to talk to your parents, grandparents, and others about your family’s history whatever your obstacles may be. It doesn’t have to be all health history…share those embarrassing fun stories and find out those interesting family secrets while you’re at it! We’ve all got ‘em.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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