By Samantha Aitken and Kirsten Bartels
Kirsten is a geneticist at BC Children’s Hospital who works with heart families.
Where did you grow up?
I’m a BC girl all the way. I grew up in Coquitlam and have since lived in Victoria and Vancouver.
Where do you work?
I work at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver as the program coordinator and genetic counsellor for the BC Inherited Arrhythmia Program (BCIAP). The BCIAP provides state-of-the-art care to patients and families with a history of inherited arrhythmia (or inherited heart rhythm condition), an unexplained sudden cardiac arrest, or a family history of sudden unexpected death. Although I am located at St. Paul’s Hospital, our program has three sites, including BC Children’s Hospital in Vancouver and Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria.
What made you want to be a genetic counsellor?
I became fascinated by genetics and developmental biology during my undergraduate degree. In speaking with my genetics professor about career opportunities in this field, she mentioned genetic counselling as an interesting niche health care role that involved specializing in both medical genetics and psychosocial counselling. I was sold!
The role of a genetic counsellor is not so niche anymore as we learn more and more about the importance of genetics in all parts of medicine. One day you might have a genetic counsellor in your family doctor’s office!
What are your main responsibilities?
I work as part of a team alongside both adult and pediatric heart rhythm specialist cardiologists, cardiac nurses, and other genetic counsellors. Diagnosing someone with an inherited heart condition is like putting together the pieces of a puzzle, and it requires the expertise of the whole team.
My role as a genetic counsellor involves helping patients and their families understand the complex genetic information related to their heart condition. This includes understanding the genetic cause of their condition, how the condition is inherited in their family, and the chance their children could be affected. I recommend appropriate genetic testing, if needed, to confirm a diagnosis or to guide management, as well as to aid in the interpretation of genetic testing results and to help facilitate family screening.
As program coordinator, I am responsible for ensuring the smooth running of our clinic at St. Paul’s Hospital but also the coordination of care across our three program sites. Since inherited heart rhythm conditions run in families, we are often coordinating care for a whole family, including parents and kids.
How does your job help heart families?
Receiving a diagnosis of an inherited heart condition not only changes the way you think about your own health, but also has implications for your family. Sometimes a new diagnosis can finally provide an explanation for generations of heart problems or a sudden death in a family. A new diagnosis can also mean that your children, parents, or siblings may have the condition as well.
As genetic counsellors, we can help families better understand the genetic cause of their heart condition and provide supportive counselling to help them adapt to their diagnosis. We can serve as advocates and refer families to other available support services. We can also support them in communicating information about the condition in their family to other relatives who may be at risk and require screening.
What are you most excited about in working at the BCIAP?
I work with a wonderful team. One of the best! We have a true passion for providing the best care possible to those with inherited heart conditions.
Outside work, what do you like to do for fun?
I love getting outside for walks, runs, and hikes—even in the rain! And I have a toddler who keeps my husband and me very busy. Our weekends are filled with playgrounds and play dates. ♥
“Interview with Kirsten Bartels” is from our fall 2019 newsletter, Heart Matters. See our Newsletters page for more stories and to subscribe.