I am the I in IWK: Sara MacKay (she/her), Genetic Counsellor

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The function of the genetic counsellor (GC) at the IWK is to provide genetic counselling to patients of all ages, from prenatal life to adulthood to families of the deceased, regarding the potential genetic condition in them or in their family.

For Sara MacKay, MS and Canadian certified genetic counsellor (CCGC), at the Maritime Medical Genetics Service, what brings her the most joy working in this field is being able to provide families with answers they’ve been looking for a long time.

“Sometimes a child has been tested for years trying to get to the root cause of their difficulties. This is called a diagnostic odyssey,” says MacKay. “And then they see genetics and we’re able to put the pieces together and hopefully find the answer.”

Genetic counselling starts as a one on one education session that looks at genetics, inheritance, the process of genetic testing and the implications of such testing. Through this process patients and families can make educated decisions about their healthcare.

“It is not about telling somewhat what to do but giving them the knowledge and tools to make their own decisions. It can become very challenging when we give a diagnosis of a condition that is degenerative. We always try to concentrate on supporting the family living day by day in any way we can.”

“I love the variety that every day presents. The reason I see patients varies day to day, but so does the patient and what they need. Each session is different and never boring.”

MacKay first entered the world of genetics as an undergraduate at Dalhousie University after hearing the term “genetic counsellor” during a lecture. “I knew I liked the sciences but was not interested in a lab or research-based profession. I liked the idea of clinical work but did not know any other options besides nursing and physician. When I heard about genetic counselling, it sounded fascinating: combined my love of math, genetics, clinical care, and ethical/psychosocial issues all in one. I started volunteering/shadowing at the local genetics clinic in Halifax and loved it!”

Since the pandemic, GCs began offering innovative care in terms of continued virtual care as well as group care. “The ability to offer all our genetic counselling appointments virtually has made things so convenient for our families. For example, I see a lot of visually impaired adults and being able to offer them services right from their home/phone is a great advantage to them!”

According to MacKay, the field of GC is still growing and will be for some time. “If anyone is interested in exploring the field and finding out if it’s right for them, then I would encourage them to check out volunteer opportunities with us!”