It’s in the genes

Robbin Palmer

Photo by Jimmy Boegle

Robbin Palmer, Ph.D., 47, is a certified genetic counselor—the only one, she says, in the Reno/Sparks area. The Ohio native graduated from Ohio State University, and she received her doctorate in developmental biology with an emphasis in molecular genetics from the University of Cincinnati. She became a genetic counselor in 1989 and moved to Reno with her husband, Tom, in 1995. She entered private practice in 1998. A member of several national organizations of genetics counselors, she sits on the genetics subcommittee of the Maternal and Child Health Advisory Board to Gov. Kenny Guinn. Palmer can be reached at 853-8592.

What does a genetic counselor do, anyway?

A big tenet of genetic counseling is that we’re nondirective. We give information to people through counseling to help them reach a decision based on their own goals and experiences on, for example, how to deal with a pregnancy.

You give information, not tell them what to do.

Right. I will help them make a decision, but that’s it. Genetic counseling is a communication process that deals with human problems associated with the risk of a genetic disorder.

When do most patients come to you?

Historically, there are many hats that genetic counselors wear. I consider myself a prenatal genetic counselor, dealing with pregnancies or the risks of a pregnancy, but I see very few pregnant women. Another hat is that some cancer syndromes are truly hereditary. Colon cancer is very common, and 10 to 15 percent, it’s estimated, is truly hereditary. Yet I have never seen anybody concerning colon cancer.

You sound frustrated.

Very. For one thing, I feel very underutilized in this community. Second, my being underutilized could mean mortalities for people and their families. I am staying here, because I see a need for my services. I am way underutilized in this community.

Why does Reno need your services?

When I came here, there were two full-time genetic counselors. The other person was with a company and left. Now, I am the only clinical genetics person here in the north. There’s only one M.D. in the entire state, and she’s out of Las Vegas.

What, specifically, can people gain from seeing you?

Knowing their risks—mainly information. I see a person knowing his or her own risks as being key.

Doesn’t a M.D have to be involved, too, as they can do tests?

Physicians are the primary gatekeepers, although people can call me directly. It’s easy for some doctors to do genetic counseling themselves, although they may not do it as completely as I would do it. A big part of it is family history. I can sit down with someone and draw a picture. You recall more if asked about specific family members. Since I am not an M.D., I can’t make a diagnosis, but I can talk to them about the expected course of a disease, how genetics contributes to that disease, what the risks are for children, how you can manage. I can also investigate what tests are available and connect them with support groups and maybe even another family.