Tag Archives: guest blogger

Guest Post: YouTube It!


Justin Lorentz is a genetic counselling student completing his second and final year of his MSc at McGill University. Before entering the world of genetic counselling he studied at the University of Waterloo and in 2010 graduated with a BSc in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology. He is a member of both the NSGC and CAGC and has been actively involved in Genetic Counselling Awareness Week since its infancy. Justin manages a Twitter account under geneharbinger which is dedicated to the field of medical genetics and genomics.

As a genetic counselling student it can be tough trying to stay on top of the seemingly exponential learning curve that marks our graduate program. In an attempt to ride this curve I find myself processing and digesting a lot of information about genetic conditions. The strategy I use to make sure this information is absorbed and retained is somewhat multidimensional in that I gather different forms of media to learn the same thing. For example I may look at Wikipedia (you do it too), I read through books, I browse through the literature, print off pictures on Google images, and I have even been known to listen to podcasts.

One day during class, the disorders under the umbrella of Limb Girdle Muscular Dystrophy (LGMD) came up and our lecturer mentioned how a patient’s gait, among many other things, can act as a clue in making a diagnosis. The lecturer was not willing to demonstrate a gait characteristic of someone with LGMD and, after mentally sifting through my usual research schema; I realized I would need to get creative if I was going to actually see this gait.

That night I went home and I typed “Limb Girdle Muscular Dystrophy” into the YouTube search bar and to my surprise I got plenty of results. The main contributor was a user named John71377 AKA John Graybill, a 34 year-old man who has LGMD type 2A. When I visited his YouTube channel here my interest was in his gait, but after watching the first 30 seconds of a video I didn’t care about that anymore. John showed me a little about his life that I would never see in a clinic or read in a textbook. As I sifted through over 30 videos of him demonstrating how he gets out of bed, goes up and down stairs, and how he stands up from a seat, I realized I would never forget about LGMD. To this day I see John when I think of this condition.

John Graybill’s YouTube channel. The current video is a demonstration and description of how John walks. On the left are his other videos that include demonstrations of how John get goes up and down stairs, rises from the ground, etc.

Comments posted in response to one of John Graybill’s videos.

I quickly realized that John’s goal in making his videos was not to show genetic counselling students how he walks; instead it was to help other people with muscular dystrophies like LGMD by sharing tips and advice about how he has overcome his limitations. In addition to his videos he advertises his website he created to raise awareness about LGMD, particularly type 2A. After looking at the comments on his channel, and then watching him on a PBS special I am confident he has been successful.

After “meeting” John, I wanted to see if there were other people who have shared their life with a genetic condition on YouTube. In a matter of seconds I “met” Jim who has myotonia congenita. He posted this video with the intention of educating the public about his condition. He shows how his body reacts when he moves rapidly and he explains how he can overcome the limitations of his condition through stretching. Then I “met” Elliot Adler, a 10 year old boy who has Charcot-Marie Tooth (CMT). With the help of his mom, he created this video raising awareness for CMT. He says that the more people who know about his feet means the better the chances of finding a cure.

Although the intentions of these videos are different, I saw similarities when I looked at the comments written about them. From what I have seen, there have always been comments from other YouTube members who could personally relate to the videos because they had a friend or relative with the same condition or because they have it themselves. Almost every comment provided support, and sometimes members would even network and share email addresses.

It is important to note that the people watching these videos are not just those who can personally relate to them. Furthermore, it is not just people with genetic conditions that are making these videos. Patient organizations such as the Canadian SADS Foundation have harnessed the power of YouTube and create videos like this one to educate the general population, spread awareness, and raise money for research.

YouTube is being used everyday as an educational tool for patient organizations, for patients with genetic conditions, and for the occasional medical genetics practitioner. It might be time for the genetic counselling community to begin thinking about whether there is a place for YouTube in their practice. YouTube videos made by organizations pose many of the same benefits and limitations as websites made by organizations. Personal YouTube videos in many ways are like personal websites, and similar disclaimers may apply if they were ever to come up in a session. But like how reading a book provides a different experience than watching a movie; viewing a website on LGMD will provide an experience that cannot be compared to seeing someone with LGMD move through their house. YouTube can be a powerful resource in this field (for better or for worse).

What information does YouTube have on your field of genetic counselling? It might be good to check it out. I bet some of your patients have done just that already.


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Starting Something New After 30 Years

This commentary is contributed as part of the guest blogger series Diverse GC Roles.


By Vickie Venne, MS

Vickie Venne, MS, is a licensed genetic counselor with Genomic Medicine Services of the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining the Genomic Medicine Service, she was Research Associate at Huntsman Cancer Institute. Ms. Venne is also actively involved in the National Society of Genetic Counselors, participating on many committees, task forces, and the editorial board of the Journal of Genetic Counseling, in addition to serving as President in 1995/6. In addition to numerous manuscripts and chapters, she has co-authored a book about genetics for the general public: The Genome Book: a Must-Have Guide to your DNA for Maximum Health.

Last month, after over 30 years as a genetic counselor, I accepted the challenge to develop and implement a new and exciting program with the Department of Veteran Affairs. I plan on it being my final career move and see it as the culmination of the variety of positions I have held over the years.

For the last 15 years, I have been at Huntsman Cancer Institute in a position that relied generally on grant funding. The largest research project was the Breast Cancer Family Registry, which allowed me to counsel and annually follow several generations of high risk families. It was an amazing privilege in a world when genetic counselors often don’t have the opportunity to provide long-term follow-up.

But by 2010, grant funding and the research focus was changing. I wanted to stay in Salt Lake, but there aren’t many positions available for someone with my experience. I graduated from Sarah Lawrence in 1978 and my career has been varied, and unique in that I have created every one of my five previous positions. Some were traditional, such as pediatric and prenatal clinics, when in the 1980s, those services were still being developed. In 1988, I became one of the first genetic counselors to work in a commercial molecular laboratory. So I considered using this experience to develop a role in other adult onset clinics, such as diabetes or ophthalmology.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, in 2006, the Department of Veterans Affairs was developing a Genomic Medicine Program with the expectation of having both a research and a clinical arm. Larry Meyer, MD, PhD, was named Director of the Genomic Medicine Service, the clinical arm. From a home base in Salt Lake City, a staff of 6 to 15 genetic counselors would provide education and consultations to both providers and patients throughout the country. How perfect.

I applied. Last month, I became the first licensed genetic counselor hired by the VA specifically to provide clinical services. There are other genetic counselors in the VA, but are part of research protocols or are contracted. This month, we hired our second genetic counselor, with plans to add more.

Locally, we will provide traditional face-to-face counseling. For the 153 other VA hospitals around the country: welcome to telehealth. The VA is adding telehealth infrastructure into every single VA hospital and community facility across the country. This will allow our staff to offer high quality genetic counseling and testing via real-time video conferencing and phone consultations to our nation’s Veterans.

Not that some aren’t already receiving care, but it is sporadic. The Genomic Medicine Service will allow for a consistent, nationally-available service that coordinates with local primary care providers. I suspect we will have the chance to work with genetic counselors outside of the VA system who provide services to individual Veterans.

What do my new days look like?  Thankfully, I know genetics, because the rest is new!

  • learning a new electronic medical record system and creating templates for requesting consults/chart notes/letters/follow-up
  • considering which data to enter into what type of database
  • preparing for ongoing performance evaluations
  • creating genetic content sheets for the clinicians as well as the patients.

As for the ‘genre’ of our clinic… There will be two different ways in which we will provide service.  First, we will respond to individual consults, which I suspect will span the adult condition spectrum, from diabetes to cancer to ophthalmology, and as the number of female Veterans grows, include prenatal diagnosis. There are already experts in these specialty areas available to the VA. Our job is to find those experts and develop national collaborations so Veterans across the country can obtain a consistent, high quality genetic service.

Secondly, we will also actively introduce genetic services that are ready for prime time, starting with Lynch screening. In the coming year, we will implement a protocol such that every Veteran with colorectal cancer will have the tumor processed for screening that may ultimately identify between 100 and 200 individuals annually with Lynch syndrome.

I took this position because of the professional opportunity, and it seemed the culmination of my experiences. And, I get to stay in Salt Lake. I can maintain my current friendships and add new colleagues to my life. I was initially nervous about leaving the comfort of a position I had been in for 15 years, but in this past month, have found that I absolutely love the challenge of learning something brand new. It has also been fun to reconnect with colleagues who I have met over the years and will work with in a new capacity. I would encourage all genetic counselors – both senior and new to the field – to explore ways in which their variety of skills can be used to augment or develop new programs.

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