In 1981, when Cheryl Shuman joined the staff at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, she was one of only two fully trained genetic counsellors in the entire country.

Today, the 54 year old heads a staff of 14, and is the program director for the masters programs in genetic counselling at the University of Toronto, one of four such programs in Canada. Her first job was south of the border, as no one was using genetic counsellors here yet.

The entire profession is quite new. It was created in the 1960s in the U.S. when doctors found they needed someone to help them educate pregnant women about the risk for genetic conditions like Down’s Syndrome. Shuman first read about the profession in a newspaper article in 1969, when she was in her last year of high school. After finishing a science degree at the University of Toronto, she enrolled in the masters program for genetic counselling at Sarah Lawrence College in New York, one of just a few schools offering such a program in the 1970s.

At school, Shuman learned about the science of genetics, and also took numerous counselling courses that dealt with many issues.

When she started at the Hospital for Sick Children nearly 30 years ago, Shuman worked in the prenatal program. Now, her clinical hours are devoted to families whose children have genetic disorders that make them grow larger than expected and, as a result of their genetic mutation, are also at higher risk for developing tumours.

While a doctor on her team does the physical examinations, Shuman takes a family history and orders blood tests. She then helps families interpret the results of the genetic tests, discuss how they’ll cope if the child is diagnosed, and talk about risks for other family members. “We demystify everything and help people contextualize the information within their own families,” she says.

With almost every new client, Shuman checks the latest medical literature to make sure she’s completely up-to-date. Genetic research is making new discoveries constantly.

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